07 December 2009


Gathering song lyrics for my new novel's chapter epigrams has been fun during this project because it's reinforced the notion that this is a story with universal appeal. Everyone's been misunderstood, underestimated, and misjudged at some point or another. Nearly everyone has loved and those who have loved either know someone or are people who have been loved badly – misused and misloved by someone who has no idea how to treat others with respect. It's been fun to develop a character in this situation for whom I wanted to root for the whole way, cheer on, help dust off and steadfastly pursue her own goals despite all the gravitational pulls of friends, family, and her own Achilles heels: being alone, lacking confidence.

Yet something more than that mean guy needs to be pushing Lydia away from her old life. What is it?

Misloved. That would be a good title, too, wouldn't it? An interesting echo of Beloved.

02 December 2009

I just wrote a 50,000-word novel and boy is my neck sore

I did it! At 11:57 pm on Tuesday, November 30, I copied and pasted my novel into the handy-dandy Nanowrimo word-count validation box: 50,016 words! I am a winner!

But in answer to your follow-up question: No, it's not finished. I tried, really I did, but I couldn't wrap it up that fast. One good thing about where I stopped two days ago (more like one-and-a-half days ago, in writing time): I'm in the middle of a suspenseful part of the story, which makes me want to get back and finish it. Only I'm too sore right now to type more than this.

In answer to your next follow-up question, yes, I'm exhausted. Writing the 50,016 words in the space of one month (a 30-day month, mind you) wasn't as difficult as I've found it in years past. It was plenty challenging nonetheless, and it took a huge push at the very end to finish before the deadline. That may be the most brilliant thing about Nanowrimo right there: that it gives you a seemingly impossible deadline to meet. There are enough other people doing it -- and getting it done early, no less -- that it seems like a perfect stretch goal: tough, but doable. O, that crafty Chris Baty (the guy who started it all a few years ago).

And when you win, talk about intrinsic rewards! You sure don't do it for the purple banner on your Nanowrimo profile. You do it so you have done it. You do it because you'll have thousands of words of a story you wouldn't have written otherwise, even if you have given yourself permission to allow them to be terrible and you'll have to rewrite it all. You do it for the writing itself. You do it to get better at writing a novel. You do it to get better at meeting a deadline. You do it to get better at pacing yourself. And you do it because once you have done it, frankly, it's a little addictive and you'd feel like a wuss if you didn't at least try. At least those are the reasons I do it. Oh, and the awesome reactions from friends and family. It is fun being the person in the family most likely to write a novel in a month! Thanks for your support.

Here's another reason you don't do Nanowrimo: to make other people feel bad. I don't want my accomplishments to be things I can use to make others wish they weren't the way they were, e.g. didn't know how to sit down and write a book (or most of one) within a month. A couple of nights ago I did a Sunday NYTimes puzzle on my own, with only two clues supplied by Mr. D, and I put the puzzle down and thought: I'm better at this.

Now, what good does that do anyone to go around thinking that way? The only reason I would ever say that is to make Mr. D. feel worse. But why would I want do that? Why do I ever act like there's one way to do things, and it's mine, the better one?

Some people are excited to cheer you on when you announce that you've been writing a novel, but plenty of us writers (this one included) have also observed that certain people respond by peering at you as if you'd just sprouted a third nipple on your chin. Admitting you have a blog can draw the same kind of response. Some people roll their eyes and say to themselves, "Oh, so you like seeing yourself think. Big whoop." They wonder whether you're just saying you write personal essays and are really hunched over your laptop writing sci-fi, erotica, fan fiction, or some other freaky online genre in which only other freaky online genre freaks would be interested.

It would be nice to hand over the bound book and say, "Here, read it if you like and tell me what you think." Their eyes would pop right out. And lo and behold, yea verily, an organization called CreateSpace is offering to print a copy of your novel if you win Nanowrimo! I'll let you know how that goes.

So it's not about winning so other people lose. First, in Nanowrimo, if you write anything at all of your novel in November, it's likely more than you would have written otherwise, so you win either way. And second, there's almost always someone who writes faster or more than you, and someone who writes slower or fewer words per writing hour. Comparisons don't really help. Instead of being jealous of people who can write 10,000 words in a day, I tell myself they just get more practice in a day than I do. One of the folks at the IHOP (I keep typing "iHOP" and having to correct myself -- ha ha) said he had written nearly half his novel over the past two days. Think of it: almost 25,000 words in two days. I can be proud of not having "shamelessly padded" my story, as they say on the Nano site, to get to the 50K, though. I tried to keep the story moving. There's not enough conflict but I'll catch it on the rewrite.

And how is the writing when you write 1,600 words in a day? 5,000? (Which I did on the last day.) 13,000 (IHOP guy)? You'll never know unless you do it, or unless someone trusts you to read their rough draft. Maybe I or the folks at the IHOP (who all won, incidentally) will rewrite his and publish it; maybe it will have just been good practice and he'll move on to different projects. I'm starting to see how nearly 20 percent of its participants can meet the Nanowrimo 50K deadline but a much smaller percentage become published authors after that. The ones who do seem to be prolific, judging by the small sample I've observed in Nano's forums.

It still seems far easier to write than it is to edit and sell the writing, which are equally consuming and perhaps, despite popular mythology, the more difficult jobs. It seems that writers must be able to turn on the taps regularly but then must spend at least as much time hauling vessels around and hooking up hoses and getting the siphons started to get the writing off their own desks. I want an assistant who would be excited to do all that stuff! My mom pointed out, as usual, right around the time I had the thought: "How nice that you are an editor and a writer." The way I had thought of it was: "I'm Danny and Meg, all in one package!" But they know all about sending their stuff out, which is where I'm ignorant and why I'm as yet unpublished.

So who are the winners here? One thing's certain: there are no losers. I think we're all winners, whether it's at writing a book, or getting dinner on the table, or finishing a work project before a critical deadline, or remaining cheerful despite all odds.

10 November 2009

NaNoWriMo day 10, 15,400 words

Again, I come bearing news that this is all going rather well. I'm liking this mettle my main character is showing of late. She's not just parts of me but is more complex, someone I'd like to get to know. I'm still on track wordcount wise, with 15,000 words written that I didn't have two weeks ago. Ten days ago. I had started a version of this story but had gotten sidetracked by a memoir project that now feels like a lot of rehearsal for what I am working on this month. I might have to mine some of what I already wrote someday when I'm struggling to keep up with my recommended daily requirement, as I think of it now. So far, though, I must say the pace is working with my life and habits. Keeps me off the streets, as I often say about writing and used to say about watching films for the BIFF selection committee.

06 November 2009

NaNoWriMo, day 6, 10,000 words

Oh, rats. The dreidl song was out of my head for a while....

I just blew past the 10,000-word mark. Yippee skippee! I am enjoying reading what I'm creating. It is good stuff. I'm not holding back. I'm liking my main character's seesawing. She meets this nice lady early on and maybe you think, oh, no, is this going to be all nicey-nice all the way through? A parade of wise crones leading her to her own inner wisdom? But then the next person who says she'll help her is not so nice at all. And there are many more interesting reversals coming up for me to look forward to as the author -- heh, heh. Then a bit of a precipice. Beyond a certain point in my story, I don't have anything plotted. I'm just going to see where she goes from there. I have a feeling she will know exactly where to go.

Sleep well, y'all. I sure will, unlike my poor main character in the scene I just stopped in the midst of so I'll have lots of momentum when I pick it up again tomorrow, which is definitely one of the best writing tips I ever heard.

NaNoWriMo, day 6, 8400 words

I confess, when I think of my current writing group, one voice tends to chime out over the top of the others. When her voice said one day, "It's all good material!" after I had checked in about an impossible situation that I had drawn myself into, I felt a permission to use my own raw material that I hadn't even noticed I hadn't given myself yet. So that little nugget of commentary and advice turned out to be a gift, for which I am grateful especially because it has allowed me to unbarricade a particularly dark and awful corner and allowed me to face up to some facts I'd been avoiding for a while. More material, yippee! [with only the merest hint of sarcasm]

And Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month, bless its pointy little head, is giving me a fun place to put all this. I even have some totems, some people I think of sometimes while writing. There's my mother and oldest sister, and now there are these wonderful constellations and planets shining in my sky: my writing groups, current and past, and Angela Shelton, who is a joyful example of someone standing up for herself and other victims of abuse. She too is taking some long looks at how we make abusers in our culture. There is the author of The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout, Ph.D., who gave me another key to a dark room whose door I can now fling wide open. I am loving working all of this memoir and information into the fabric of this story of a woman getting out from under an ugly, sad situation with an abuser at its core, who must begin the task of making good choices for herself. I confess I feel a little like I'm attempting to climb up there too by telling this story, which I hope can become another bright glow in a constellation that will illuminate more than just my path.

Exercise: Fill in the blanks: "_____s will be _____s!"

What phrase did you pick? One of my novel's themes is the expectations we project onto people because of how we identify them, how we sort each other into categories. Also interesting to me is how often we are right about the character of the person, but wrong about the specific details.

Plus it's a road story.

25 October 2009

Beyond reframing: Deframing

In a story from today's New York Times about changes in The Museum of Modern Art's modernist art collections, I just read a great thing. MoMA decided to change the display of some of these paintings by removing their frames. I love this quote: “'Now these strokes explode off the canvas,' she said happily.”

Isn't that great? It's so simple – remove the frame and you've got a whole different painting on your wall. And you get an artwork that is in the state in which the artist first experienced it. I don't imagine most painters think as they're working on their latest artwork, “I'd better make something that matches that really rococo gold frame in the corner.”

And it's such a simple exercise, elegant like that last thought Byron Katie has you do: Can you picture this differently? Can you see this picture differently? In this case the answer seems to be an emphatic yes. (The whole question about pictures and frames makes me wonder about the history of picture frames. How did we come to accept flowery, flourish-filled ornatities around our paintings in the first place?)

I love the exercise, the mental leap you can take away from this. How could you remove a frame from a problem you can't see your way out of? How could you recontextualize your problem and change your view of it?

22 October 2009

Review: David Carr's The Night of the Gun

Despite what my blog might have you believe and as much as I love making food for my family, I am more interested these days in memoir, in questioning my past and some of the assumptions I have lived with for many years. So it was with interest that I picked up a memoir that at first glance looked like it could have been written by my father and began to read.

Within a couple of days I had finished reading David Carr's memoir The Night of the Gun. I found it interesting because he was so messed up -- for a guy born with only one kidney, he played fast and loose with his mental and physical health, hoovering up enough drugs (I'd guess) to get an inner-city high school high on crack for days. Yet he was determined as hell to make something of his time every minute he was lucid enough to do something about his work. I found Carr's determination inspiring and fascinating (and so did he, examining it like it had just crept in from outdoors and draped itself over his neck [quotes mine, not Carr's]: "Say, what's this? How does it work? Can I use it for my own advantage? Yes!" I found Carr's backslides at least as interesting as his original transgressions against nature. Then he turns around and like Clark Kent emerging from the phonebooth, instantaneously swinging a great red cape, almost always gets treated as a veritable god in his work life, barely capable of doing any wrong. He gets the stories, interviewing people his peers believe can't be had, and he gets the stories right (almost always). But he eventually succumbs to the conceit that he can just slip under the radar as a garden-variety "suburban drunk," buzzing home on the train after work. Naturally, Carr gets out of control in a hurry once he follows that logical vapor trail. Perhaps this book is best read as Carr's love letter to his frontal lobe, which eventually gains the capacity to last inform his decisionmaking processes in an age- and responsibility-appropriate fashion over time. Time will tell if the reversal is permanent or if the old patterns are too ingrained, the old triggers too easy to trip.

Carr questions his thoroughly researched memoir enterprise all along and he is right to do so. That is an enterprise that can quickly get narcissistic. In fact here, he forces himself to be narcissistic. He says, I never excavated this belly button, and here is every shred of lint and many interviews to establish which piece of lint arrived when. But he is one of the lucky ones for whom his children did give him meaning and inspire him to change his entire way of life. Not too long after I tired of descriptions of the vortex of badness into which his life had devolved, I came to admire his dedication on behalf of his kids, his resoluteness to do right in their presences. Incredibly, according to his painstakingly researched and documented personal history, Carr successfully forswore crack around his "babies" but only backslid on this commitment when he was abusing alcohol (but surprisingly not cocaine or methamphetamines).

Reading his story, I even let myself wallow in a little jealousy of his twin girls, who had each other through it all and who as a result had no idea what their father had a checkered past until he told them about his bad self. I wonder if that came as a bigger shock to them than he expected. But he'd prepared them for it -- they'd hung out with ex-drunks and trying-to-recover junkies throughout their childhoods, as well as a cast of truly supporting characters who helped them get through many a tight spot.

Whatever talent he had, competition and winning was a prime motivator. Hardly a month out of rehab, Carr was already refining his story about having picked himself up and dusted himself off after getting dragged down by "the Life." He was already angling for a Best Comeback award. When a friend said he was applying for a job Carr wanted, back in the days when he was still using drugs, Carr held silent. Everyone later said he should have told his friend he'd been gunning for the same position. But no, he said nothing, and guess who got the job: David Carr did. By the accounts of the people he interviews in his memoir, as an editor he did well; some of the folks who worked with him disagree about how much good he did. But his gift for coming out on top in a competition has clearly served him well: he worked his way up to reporter for the New York Times.

I'm impressed someone that screwed up can truly have that much good in him. He says he always thought of himself as a good man with a bad habit. He gives credit to AA for placing his addiction and the rest of the physical and spiritual world in their proper perspectives in his life. I also noted that Carr returned to his Catholic roots. Catholics always seemed to have the most straightforward program for atoning for sins of anyone ("Take two Hail Marys and you're good to go"). There's a religion that doesn't drag you through the muck but lets you get on with your life, and this guy had some lost time to make up, so that served him well, too.

But Carr doesn't take any of the easy ways out, but rather takes a fearless moral inventory of himself. I think I would have regarded this as just another narcissistic James Frey-type junkie odyssey but for the part when his daughters are about four and he tries to get close to some women, but the women he's choosing are not what he wants for himself or his girls and he does something because he knows something's wrong but can't quite identify what it is. He talks to someone who helps him understand what he wants for himself and his daughters and what he has to change to make that happen. Then he up and changes. It's impressive.

Perhaps Carr is an unusually determined and competitive recovering junkie and drunk. I appreciate the object lesson he offers in his memoir. If someone like that can make that much of himself, and singlehandedly raise twin daughters, what the heck do I have to whine about?

05 October 2009

Signs of fall: Canning concord grapes

I made jam twice this week and the second batch was the best ever. Three words: Pomona's Universal Pectin. Happy happy joy joy at that discovery. My jelly had five cups of grape juice, five cups of sugar, and jelled beautifully. I can hardly wait to try another kind of fruit. Pluot jam, anyone?

02 October 2009

In case Miley Cyrus needs a little extra songwriting help

This is pretty terrible, most likely, but I gave myself the writing assignment to write a Hannah-Montana worthy song lyric:

Let's Go, Baby

I'll be a rock star
Gonna go far
You said you loved me so
Said you would never know
Said you just had to go
Here I am on the hill
Standing so still and
Waiting for you to
Catch up
Catch on
Catch on to it

Let's go, baby,
Up where we belong
Down into our groove
To make a new sound now
To make a new sound now, yeah

Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yeah!

Say you don't know
Say it can't show
It's just your clingy fears,
trying to bring you tears
Throw 'em out on their ears
Here I am on the hill
Standing so still and
Waiting for you to
Catch up
Catch on
Catch on to it

Let's go, baby,
Up where we belong
Down into our groove
To make a new sound now
To make a new sound now, yeah

I'm a rock star
Gonna go far
Now you are so far away
You were all I dreamed one day
Now I'm here to stay

So let's go, baby,
Up where we belong
Down into our groove
To make a new sound now
To make a new sound now, yeah

Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yeah!

Ok, time to boil jars for jam. Whatta life.

06 September 2009

Separation bites

It's been a heckuva year so far.

Here's but one example of what in the rear-view mirror looks like a major trend.

The outcome of recent events has left me feeling like an ass to some of my family. On the other hand, I don't feel obligated to get into it with these people just because I'm from the same fucked-up family. I keep coming back to this fundamental reality for me: I don't want the kind of drama that swirls around them in my life any more. I still believe it doesn't need to be that way, and years of experience are bearing this out handily.

Since living closer to these folks, I've picked out some family: my husband and child and mother and best friend. With them I've found another love and acceptance that is sweeter and truer and more direct in a way there's never room for in the crises or the utter absences of the characters in my nuclear family. Sure, I miss that chance with my family of origin to connect and overcome our differences to find out what we have in common. Yet every darned time, the cost seems so terribly high.

I did find it exciting to clear out some massive swaths of space earlier this year. Made a big, overwhelming task shrink way smaller in one fell swoop. It was a fun demonstration of what could be done in a day.

But what little I have to offer never feels like enough. Especially if you start talking about compensating for a certain kind of parenting lacking any valuing of emotional intelligence and growth nor any acceptable physical reality except looking good.

Gee whiz, I'm a tough audience.

And about the drama: I know, I know, I'm the one who threw the shitfit at the end. Look, that was a bit of sleight of hand (and I was pissed at the way something was done with me). Plus: things the rest of the family did not know nor was it any of my business to share were going down at the same time. I threw a wall up to try and help with that.

I've gotten pretty good at getting the biggest bang for my travel bucks and got us a great deal and the right number of rooms. One of my family was amazing, relentless: wheedled for our locations and commitments and forced me to declare out loud that I didn't want to stay "with the others." That one wanted every detail under their control, everyone in place at all the right times.

Thing is, I stew about this murky stuff of origin, but mostly I find it preferable to not go into it with them, not stir it up. I feel sad about that in turn because I do know what I'm giving up. I know we won't have many more opportunities to reminisce about people we have known and places we have been, relatives we share. I know I'm sacrificing our communal desire to reclaim shared memories. But I find I have to let go of my need to share that journey toward an old age in which the more we age, the more we recall the older stories. But at the end of the argument I keep coming around to that small still voice in my gut telling me yes or in this case no no no not that way don't.

And yet, I'm reconnecting with others in my family, and putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing to work on my stories. They're all I have, except for the vast, buoying love of my current family, my family of choice.

You know what? It's true: love hurts. But separation bites.

Thanks for listening.

28 August 2009

My kid's class has too many kids!

*Edit 9/6/09* I've been remiss in not updating you. Good news! They made a new class for our grade. As soon as I sent the letter below, I got a reply from the superintendent saying that I should talk to our principal. There was a letter from him in my child's classwork folder saying they were creating another class. Hooray!


This is what I wrote this morning.

Open letter to Dr. Chris King, Superintendent of Boulder Valley Schools, and the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education:

As a parent of a child attending third grade at Crest View Elementary this year, I am acutely aware of the difficulties you face: in particular those of balancing the Boulder Valley School District's budgetary concerns with the vast need for the rich resources the Boulder Valley School District has to offer. We in Boulder have set a high bar in the educational community, and in the problems we continually join to
address and correct in our schools. As a parent at a large elementary school that seems to be growing every day, I am grateful for the wide range of expertise and enrichment my daughter has been able to receive at Crest View. Crest View has proved a great resource for our family. Our daughter has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and nearly every teacher she has encountered at Crest View has supported her education and enrichment.

Now that my child's class roster contains 32 children, however, I am concerned that my child, who has special needs (sensory integration and vision issues, along with difficulty tuning out distractions) will find having so many kids in one room an obstacle to being able to pay attention in the classroom. One day this past week, her homework was to list a few wishes about school. She wrote, "I wish I could sit next to someone quieter" (she's at a cluster of six desks) and "I wish we had no squeaky doors."

Parents and teachers have told me Ms. Baxter is considered a part-time addition to the third-grade teaching staff, and so the ratio per teacher is considered by the district to be 25-to-1, but I fear that statistic does not reflect the reality of keeping 32 kids at once moving in a steady stream through the study, work, eating, and playing that fill their 6.5 hours at school each day. Only a subset of their time involves
the children being pulled out into smaller groups. Each third-grade classroom has 31 or 32 kids; the fact is, it takes more time to get 32 kids to wash their hands before snack and lunch. When it's snowy, out of 32 kids, more are going to need help with boots and jackets. Of course, these class sizes will demand far more from the teacher at conference times. And more children need that one-on-one time with their primary teacher every day, something for which there is no substitute. Some kids are fine -- you can just see they know how to get their needs met and get their work done. But my child has benefited so much more from her classroom time when she has had that one-on-one time and been able to develop a relationship with her teacher. I don't want her and the other kids to lose their access to their teachers; the kids are at an age when their teachers' understanding and encouragement may make all the difference in whether they become more or less engaged in their schooling in the future.

Dr. King, I urge you and the Board of Education to consider add another third-grade classroom at Crest View immediately. Our neighborhood is growing, and will continue to grow as new families move or relocate from other neighborhoods into the new houses being built near the existing Four Mile Creek development at 47th and Jay Road. As the economy rebounds, more families with young children will be able to afford housing in the neighborhoods surrounding Crest View, which will drive further infill in the area as well.

We are only going to continue to need more teaching and other resources at Crest View, yet I believe our community is prepared to do what they can to support their school. One of the reasons we chose to stay at our neighborhood school was the high caliber and tremendous commitment of the community toward Crest View. I am still impressed. I contribute time in the classroom with the kids and additional volunteer work on the Garden to Table program, and am certain I'm not the only parent or community member who relishes these opportunities to give back. I also believe this means you could ask us, the Crest View community, and we would be there for you with our energy and expertise to help you find and implement solutions to these problems. We are all talented and smart people who have a huge stake in our school. I hope we can all work together on finding the most creative ways to maximize our limited resources, and I hope we can act quickly for the sake of relieving the children and their teachers from the pressures they are facing every day.

27 August 2009

Scraped: They paved it and put in a parking spot

Busy, busy! We're all back! The kid's back in school, and everyone's back at work. Me at home, and with my writing, which is going like gangbusters out of the gate already. I'm three days into this novel I keep thinking I could write really fast. It's a story about a woman who escapes her abusive husband on a Vespa, and I even have a working title for it and people and situations. There's even a research component coming right up, but I promise not to let that get in the way of the storytelling.

What I haven't thought of is a new name for my character, as she'll have to switch. It's holding me up a little. I'll have to put it in my head and shake it up at dance class, which is in 20 minutes.

So I was just dropping in to say hello to whomever is out there still. I'm glad to be home and back into the writing, and we have projects and things a comin' 'round the pike, so stay tuned.

Oh, and they finally scraped the little house at 1227-1/2 High Street away. My tree is still there, though. It's two parking spaces now. Nothing left standing but the trees that had stood on either side of the tiny house. All gone.

26 July 2009

My life under glass, 40 years later

Going to the poster art exhibit at the Denver Art Museum gave me the odd sensation of seeing the stuff I stared at every day in shop windows and tacked onto phone poles hermetically sealed and mounted on stark white expanses of wall. I both wanted to say something about having been there then, and I also wanted not to, as I wandered through the crowds and peered at the barely scrutable poster art.

I enjoyed seeing the kids, including my own, so thrilled with the "animations" -- different images were printed in different colors on the same print so that when three different colors of light were shone on the one poster, it appeared to move, like a holographic image.

I also liked making a poster as a keepsake at the museum exhibit. I had laughed and rolled my eyes at myself when I saw how many posters advertised Big Brother and the Holding Company shows. I knew I would never be able to pinpoint the show I had seen from my perch on the piano on the same stage as Janis Joplin, where in a fringed orange dress she belted out her raspy tunes and totally surprised me by being white, not black. I think we saw that show not at the Avalon Ballroom but at the Straight Theater, because I am pretty sure we came into the theater from Haight. But my memory may be misleading me; I was only four or five and quite overwhelmed by the company we were in -- all those scary looking Hells Angels.

This exhibit seemed to display an amazingly comprehensive collection of the bills advertising the explosion of music that would come to be known as part of "the San Francisco Sound." There must have been twenty or thirty for Big Brother and the Holding Company; there were probably double that for Quicksilver Messenger Service. (Someone with time on his or her hands and a nice database could make a sweet graphic displaying the frequency with which the bands appear on the posters from that era. That would be fun to see.)

We saw more than a few bizarre sounding lineups, but one thing I noticed was how the blues still provided the primary idiom, the musical lingua franca that everyone spoke and some people more than others were able to subvert to their own voices and messages. I was often uncomfortable with the blues -- especially the songs with the "I'm-your-daddy" lyrics. Ick. I loved the lazy sweetness of Taj Mahal's music, but disliked him for his cover of that horrid "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" song. Quicksilver's "Suzy Q" made me equally queasy. Some things you just know are wrong from the get-go, and I was sure about all that.

I had a nice moment of familiarity with myself when I looked at the Zap Comix books the DAM had on display and felt a sense impatience with the abstraction of the particular comic strip shown. I didn't particularly enjoy trying to decipher all that crazily drawn, difficult-to-read text back then; that graphic opacity impaired my enjoyment of the artwork and storytelling, if there was a story at all. I still feel that way. Give me a bold and clear design that supports its message, or at the very least a good story. I am still not likely to spend too much time on something unless I find it extremely beautiful or illuminating.

But goodness, I'm still feeling whomped upside the head by my recent revelation that no, my baby sister was no longer with us when we saw the televised moon landing on July 21, 1969, at the house of some rare friends who had a set (Pam and someone, Jewish friends). That must have been where we were staying when I went to that preschool for a few days. I wonder: Was driving my parents crazy then, asking whether my sister was coming back or would we meet her somewhere later, even though I'm sure I'd been told what had happened. I never saw her after she died, but I did see her unconscious, which felt like it was nearly the same thing. I think I went once to where she is buried.

And there's more to hope for and think good thoughts for than ever these days: my body, my family's and friends' bodies. Yet there's only so much I can think or say or do in a day, and again it's time to rest and recharge.

23 July 2009

It's not what they say; it's what you do.

Coming into my own.

What does that little cliche mean to me?

Being this age I'm starting to see how little it matters what anyone thinks -- it's all what you do. I know it sounds teenagerishly obvious, but so what? There it is.

So how do I make my time here matter most?

I seriously think I just have to make myself sit down and crank out the first completed draft of my novel in two weeks (I am not kidding!), working crazy hours and letting myself just get immersed in it. I am going to need rolls of wide butcher paper for mapping the storyline, just to keep myself straight with all the details, but I think doing that will help it work. (This reminds me of Matthue and Brett's creativity workshop revelations about how I see and hear and mentally map things out, which I have ever since found marvelously helpful.)

I had some notion yesterday that I was going to sit down and write for ten hours, but other things kept beckoning and I kept not sitting down to write that at all until I had no more time left. So I thought, where do I get the idea I am going to sit down and write ten chapters? I'm good for an hour or three at once usually, but that's about it. It's hard work, in the way that visiting a museum is hard work. It's a lot to take in at the museum, and a lot to process as a writer, and sometimes I don't even want to go there. But I am always glad when I do, and I would love to just plunge all the way into that story and finish it.

In a recent writing group discussion about why we write, I said in part to reach out to people,to say it's okay to be you. Another person in the group was surprised. She felt it was always just about getting in touch with the event or person or emotion of the scene, the memory.

I do these projects that have been calling out to me: Making movies. Writing my book. Writing songs. A libretto? I am so ignorant of all this! I have several great projects in the immediate future: I have to recut my gomez movie so it's waaaay shorter (i.e., under ten minutes). I have another good idea for a short film I could do over the next few days if everyone is around. (Note to me: It would be great if the chickens would come back from Ft. Collins. Maybe my neighbor would bring them back for this reason if I asked nicely. And gave her a nice bottle of wine.)

Hmm, a young, searching person in the lead in the musical -- Zac Efron wondering if he's gay. What? Musical?! I still can't believe I'm saying this out loud.

There it is.

18 July 2009

Feeling it and singing it -- at the same time?!

Today's dance class revelation: I truly don't know if I could be a rock star. They sing it every time as if they mean it, because they do, I realized. (There's that sincerity dictum I learned about from Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music -- that people who make great actors and rock stars understand something about being able to tap into sincere wellsprings of feeling to do what they do, and people can usually instantly recognize when they're faking it).

Today I felt all my emotions when we danced to the Michael Franti song about bringing our children home, pleading to stop their sacrifice in the name of war and commerce. I danced my greatest yearnings and deepest entreaties, in the spirit of a Quaker, with me plain, naked of soul, nothing interposed between me and that which I begged for mercy. I even had to go out of the hall and cry for a minute after that song, which is unusual. But after a minute I drank some water and went on with the dance.

That's the part of being a rock star that would be hard: feeling it and keeping it all moving forward when singing a song like "Time To Go Home" ("Don't take our boys away, no, don't take our girls away.... It's time to go home") or the end of Bonnie Raitt's "Louise" ("Well, everybody thought it kind of sad / When they found Louise in her room / They'd always put her down below their kind / Still some cried when she died this afternoon / Louise rode home on the mail train / Somewhere to the south I heard 'em say"). How do you feel it without succumbing to it?

03 July 2009

The most familiar dance

I think I have a crush on my dance class.

I can see how over time my teacher might have to fend off students who develop crushes on her, because she is such a good teacher, in the fullest sense of the words. But I really think for me I am in love with the knowledge I am getting from doing this kind of dancing. Somehow this particular mad amalgam of dance forms, martial arts, Feldenkrais movement principles, Yoga, and self-expression, imbued with music, my favorite art form of all, is so familiar to me.

The dance forms, which as I get deeper familiarized with them, work with the body's natural flow, our natural inclinations toward rhythm and grace. This dance is familiar in the way I recognize a neighborhood in London I've never visited before, or already know how to cook a food in a French way (even though I've hardly cracked that Gastronomique Larousse that sits so pretentiously on a shelf).

This dancing opens me to more, keeps me in the present moment. I see and feel when I slip out of the present, but it gets easier all the time to slip right back into the now.

02 July 2009

Greetings from the non-Midwest

Life keeps unfolding in bizarre and compelling ways, always keeping me guessing. I went and helped my uncle out a bit, but haven't been able to bring myself to go back since.

I'm sitting at my messy kitchen table gearing up for a new phase of the day: the one where I go to the grocery store for a couple of items for dinner and the coming few days, then going to a dance class. Yum! Flageolet beans are soaking and a quick, barely-kneaded bread dough is sitting in a warm oven doing its yeasty thing.

Daily life is about the most basic of things. Yesterday a trip downtown on bikes turned dramatic when I made a mistake that caused an accident. Luckily we weren't in heavy traffic, but there were some scrapes and freakouts, and justified mistrust. But my poor kid might have felt worse when I accused myself of being a terrible mother out loud. "Where's the tissue box, Mom?" she asked, brimming over before she could find it.

Today I had fun making lunch: gluten-free mac and cheese from scratch, with apples, carrots, and brown rice chips. Delish, all of it, and everyone liked and ate most everything, which is always satisfying.

A couple of days ago, we returned home from Iowa, where the heat wasn't bad and the company was good. I still feel I stick out like a sore thumb there, because I seem to have come from folks who were still headed west long after these folks' ancestors settled in the Midwest. (Just a point of clarification for non-Coloradoans: Colorado is not the Midwest in our minds -- at least not until you get far enough out on the plains, in the eastern part of the state that you can't see the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.)

Often communication was easiest through the pets that circled us and begged for scraps from willing feeders. (I joked that dogs think I don't know their names because I'm always telling them, "Dream on.") One of the relatives spent most of her time treating her dogs like toddlers, taking every step with them and attending to their every need as any good mother would. And instead of being horrified, I found it sweet, and only a little sad that she didn't feel as comfortable with the people around her. But they all have a way of not talking about things that is, shall I say, a bit alien to me.

Of course I feel I am alien to them in my analytical qualities. I am always thinking of situations on many levels, trying to see context while trying to hear what people are really saying. In short, a lot of people would say I think too much, have too much time on my hands. Maybe, but I have something I want to make with it. Something I need to say. Because if I try to spill out all these complicated feelings about the food industry right there in their heartland kitchens, it won't be pretty. I can't do that to them. There's an interesting set of choices at work: it's okay to put one's energy into remodeling a bathroom or a porch, and then to talk about one's choices and travails, but they're not going to talk about that person's parents, or this person's tragedies.

All the same, it's good to see everyone up close, to smile and laugh and eat together until you want to burst. It's good to know we're all just who we are, and it's fun for me to be in a group where the grandma sits at the top of this small mountain of people. Events like that involving my own grandparents have been sparse indeed. I can't fill one hand with instances. Amazing. And here's this lovely lady who's had kids and grandkids and still laughs and gets around at 89.

And these aren't folks who are going to let any of theirs fall through the cracks, either. I saw that in how everyone looks after the youngest, who has some special needs, shall we say, but whose community is rising up to meet her.

Aw, jeez, it's raining again!

27 May 2009

Mind-body resonance: The opposite of cognitive dissonance

It occurs to me that I don't know whose idea it was to live in the town where we landed after the blitz of losing my sister 40 years ago, just before I turned six. We had left California within days of her death for Colorado, to settle in the liberal enclave of Boulder, which would be better than the cowtown that Denver was in the 1970s since the Beats had all hightailed it for the coasts. Now I see the wisdom of it. I see it could be in part my father's way of handing down something he was himself given even though the values he espouses have always tended to involve total freedom from the strictures of money and status. His gift, the gift of growing up in a safe and secure enclave, a place where I could - and did - sink roots, came at no personal cost to him, an added benefit in his eyes I am certain.

But growing up in idyllic places didn't necessarily shelter me from the evils of the world. I lost a sister and a substantial portion of my innocence to the brutality that plagued us from His Favorite Chair throughout my childhood in my laid-back college town. The times I tried to bring my grievances to the perpetrator of this violence in my life, he's pulled a Ronnie Reagan on me and disclaimed any memory of alleged events. He's never seemed particularly contrite or sorry about not knowing how to parent and not trying hard to do it when he had the chance. In recent years he has asked me to paper over all that – what he calls forgive – but I haven't felt the love that would inspire me to forgive. That's what it comes down to. I've felt the obligation conferred by family roles, but I have not felt a deep and unconditional love for who I have been and who I have become, nor for how I have chosen to live my life.

Also, I can't ignore the din of that weird and constant superliminal tallying, his continuous attempt to leverage as much influence as possible so as to claim you on his list of Friends I Drop In On When In Town (FIDIOWITs).

Thing is, you might be surprised at two things about him: the steadfastness of the FIDIOWITs who will see him year in and year out, who will let him sleep in their guest rooms and allow him to commandeer their kitchens to make coffee with great ceremony at various times of the day; you might also raise your eyebrows at the high turnover rate among his FIDIOWITS, as some recognize a certain modus operandi and turn away from its strange fascination.

Many a friend of mine has laughed at me when I yearned for coffee on the sluggish slope of an afternoon, but those times are also when I also recall my father’s rhythms – inevitably accompanied by memories of how he imposed his cycle upon everyone else. On one infamous rafting trip a few years ago, my father stripped to nothing in the middle of camp and proceeded to set a skillet on a stove and roast and hand-grind his coffee beans, then boil water and drip a pot of fresh coffee. I had stopped going rafting with him years earlier, when I'd realized I never again wanted to be dependent on him, especially in a car with him at the wheel. (If you’re going on rafting trips, there are always shuttles involved, and so it’s usually unavoidable to share cars a couple of times during the trip.) It helps that my dear husband is shy of whitewater rafting, too, so I figure we may as well all heed those instincts. With every passing year, I feel less of a need to pursue great risks for exciting payoffs, as I feel more invested in my life and loves. (And my acquisition of mountain biking skills in the past five years has suffered grievously as a result.)

To my sister, my father called my adamant feelings toward him a "grudge." There's a kernel of truth there: No, I haven't let go of everything. Especially not if letting go means pretending nothing ever happened. I haven't let go if letting go means ignoring all the scars, those dense, fibrous barriers that exist between us even now.

I'm still pissed off about some of this ancient history to call him "my birthfather" when I talk about him. One of the reasons for the endurance of this anger is the deprivation his presence imposed on the rest of us when I was growing up. There's a long backstory, but he didn't exactly fulfill the potential his parents saw for him (another detail that makes the Gilmore Girls' story familiar, except theirs is ultimately secure, funny, and loving instead of chaotic, violent, and disturbing). So much of the time he seemed to resent us, his family, for holding him back personally and financially. He has been squirrelly about money as far back as I can remember. My mother had to beg him for enough money for the absolute basics to run the household; he used every ounce of his power to persuade her that she should not have a job of her own.

The sure signs of the prism through which he saw the world were the first accusations he hurled at others from drunken lips, just after that slam of the glass of whiskey onto the table signifying the moment his inner alcoholic stew had roiled to a sputter and fume, spilling over its pot. Deceitful! Secretive! Selfish! he would cry, lashing out while we women and children ran for cover. Hours later it would be like sifting through the wreckage at a battlefield, however subtle the revelations of the landscape. We were always on high alert as we scanned for broken things or worse, bruised or broken people. We didn't know who would come back to the house and the chair in the living room and the dinner table and the whiskey bottle that night or the next, whether that man would be angry or contrite, whether the wounds inflicted this time would be visible damage to a face or emotional lacerations. At any given time the odds always seemed about equal, with one option appearing far worse and more potentially destructive than the other.

And everyone wondered why I was falling asleep in my classes after lunch all through junior high and high school. I was finally relaxing a little by then every day, catching up on my rest before I had to steel myself once again to face home.

I find it odd now that our father now appears to think we as his children are interested in what he has, when to me it's only stuff. He has nothing that I feel belongs to me. It feels a bit ironic, though, in that he always accused his father of attaching strings to every gift, requiring hoops to be jumped or barrels cleared for every contribution he was expected to put up for school or anything else. Now my father seems to be grasping for that power himself, but I see him coming up empty-handed again and again, his hooks still baited.

We might have gone on being tolerant of one another for years but I threw the wrench into the works a couple of years back when I realized I did not trust him not to say or do something offensive around me or my child. I told him that his fundamental disrespect for women was incompatible with how I am raising my kid. Nothing I see or hear about him convinces me that has really changed in this respect (or disrespect, as the case may be). And there's the he's-doing-his-best-with-his-limited-set-of-tools argument, but even that's worn awfully thin. I see how far my mother and I have come in our adult lives, and I know many more who have risen above or gone beyond their family's or even their own expectations for themselves and made themselves better and more loving people.

For me, another evening spent propping up a myth of family closeness indicated by the time spent sitting through another recital of a many-times-told travel anecdote is not enough. I deserve more than that from my friends, and I give more of that to my friends.

Furthermore, I don't see an obligation to take care of him someday no matter what simply by virtue of his being my elder. He spent so much of his life trying to disclaim responsibility for me as quickly as he could that I feel not allowing him close enough to me to treat me in that way again is a justifiable and proportional reaction.

The great news from this side of the familial divide: refusing to engage and "forgive" doesn't mean I need to act any differently from how I truly feel. I continue to feel that honoring my own truths has been among the most healing things I have ever done. I give myself a nice pat on the back for this. Thanks, me.

22 May 2009


What a relief. I got a call from the Boulder Police officer last night and she told me that the driver in question is no longer driving that bus. Yesterday was much better then the few days that preceded it. It was traumatic but appears to be over.

I don't know why he is no longer driving that route.

I am very pleased with how seriously this was taken. The last thing the police officer on the case told me, besides the case number, was that the police would be showing the information they had gathered to the DA's office so a decision could be made about whether to pursue harassment charges.

The most difficult part of this experience, besides being forced to think about the worst that can happen, which no one really wants to do, was that as soon as all these questions came up about his behavior with the kids, I wanted action.

And truly, this was pretty fast action, considering all the "We have to go through proper channels"es I heard. It makes me wonder: did the police find anything questionable in his record, something the background check didn't catch? Did he quit? Is he driving somewhere else? Many questions and speculations remain, but I'm glad my daughter and the other kids on that bus don't have to worry about those bus rides home.

And I'm glad she told me how she felt. It meant she had hope in her mind that I could help her solve this problem. I think she was surprised and pleased at how seriously I took it. Our actions formed a circle of trust in each other and ourselves, and in others, too. She took risks in telling me, but I took her discomfort seriously. I took a lot upon myself (confronting the driver directly first, and then talking with the principal), but I also quickly saw that I couldn't decide what was legal and how he should be dealt with and needed help from people who were trained and skilled in that.

The kids are always learning about community in their school lessons, but between the freaky bus driver experience and the past two days of harvest/salad feast/second plantings, this week was positively jammed with real-life lessons in community and relying on one another.

Now I feel like I'd like to sleep for a week.

19 May 2009

But you don't have to, and she knows it

Talked to the principal again and called the bus driver's boss today. He said the drivers are subjected to intensive background checks, as I expected, and, "We have to go through our proper channels." The first step, he said, was for him to talk with the driver about the behavior.

Meanwhile, I'm writing all this down, and putting it in a letter.

Today my kid just told me this same bus driver had asked her a few months ago to say something into his phone when it was in recording mode about the other kid he'd paired my kid with, so he could play it back when the other kid got on the bus. She told him, "I'm not going to do that." "But you have to," the driver told her. "No, I'm not going to do that," she said.

She also told me more details about how his seat-blocking game works. Pairs of kids can get to the first two seats, but he blocks the rest of the seats by lying across the second row of seats, while he plays with his iPhone. (Is he taking pictures of them?) So kids who have buddies sit up front, and anyone who wants to sit alone in the back of the bus has to wait for him to clear the way.

See how he isolates kids and creates uncomfortable situations for them? This is predator behavior, friends. This is not someone who cares for children.

18 May 2009

The momentum of ideas

This is what serendipity feels like. It's been so interesting to write my own truths, at last, without wondering what others will think or do if I say the things I remember out loud. And the effects of this experience are traveling like waves and creating actions in other places.

A dear friend said to me, "This is a watershed moment. You'll remember time as before and after this event." So far this is the truth of it.

The little one and I were reading Little House stories the other night and Nellie Oleson's lawlessness sparked a memory for her. My ears had been pricking up lately at her reports about her bus driver. Now she was wishing out loud she wouldn't have the same bus driver anymore. I noticed I had been picking her up more lately.

"He keeps saying stuff to me and to [the other kid], about are we each other's boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't like it."

"You're right," I agreed. "I don't like it either."

She then started telling me what her bus driver had been doing.

I said, "I'll go talk to him on Monday. I will pick you up at school, and I will talk with him after school."

After school, I met my child at her classroom and came back out to where her bus had pulled in, the last one, at the end of the bus circle. I stepped onto the bus and told him my daughter had said he had said some things about her and another kid that were making her feel uncomfortable.

Sitting back and affecting a relaxed slump, he smiled and said, "Oh, I think there's a misunderstanding. That wasn't it at all. This was just something the kids had started playing at, and I was just keeping it going." Winking a little, like he was in on their joke, their buddy, you know.

"OK," I said, in a neutral way (that I learned from watching the show Sports Night and that really means "OK, sure, you believe that, but no, I do not"). I looked him in the eye and told him that I had once had issues with that kid and I absolutely do not want anyone encouraging him in that direction.

"I think you're misunderstanding what happened," he insisted. "This was just a game that the kids had started playing."

Out of the corner of my eye while I was in this scene, I was also observing what my kid was doing. Initially, she had shyly stepped back, away from the intensity of the confrontation. But she stepped in closer and kind of perked up when he started to reiterate that "the kids had started it." This time he looked right at her when he said it.

I felt like the wizened old woman of the fairy tale, the questing hero groveling before her after having come up with the wrong answer. Only he wasn't groveling at all. He was saying, "I'm right. Believe me."

I didn't think my kid was having any of it either.

It was when he showed zero contrition that my hackles went up. I saw no mutual desire to protect our youth from the inevitable but a-little-longer-delayable confusion of hormones and desire and misinformation in equal measures.

"They're little kids," I insisted to the driver. "That kind of talk is inappropriate, and makes them uncomfortable."

He protested a little more, but I made sure I got the final word: "I don't want anyone to encourage any more of that inappropriate talk." He smiled and nodded. I left with my child, who will not ride the bus with that driver again.

"What he said wasn't true," my kid told me as soon as we had walked away from the bus. "The kids didn't start that game. The bus driver was saying that stuff. We weren't saying it." People, kids included, know when they are being lied to.

It kept on rolling forward, this little train we set in motion. We went home, after I'd left a note for my kid's principal to call me. He reached me half an hour later and I told him what I had just said to the bus driver.

"Who's the adult here?" he asked immediately. "Exactly," I said, glad he saw the problem as I did. He apologized for not always being out at the bus circle to see the kids off at the end of the day, and he assured me that he will talk to that driver tomorrow.

After this, my kid and I were both feeling good. Then I said, "I really do want to talk to the mom of the other kid the driver had been teasing along with you. I'd think she'd want to protect him just as much as I want to protect you. I want to protect him as much as I want to protect you."

"Okay," she said, totally game. "It feels really good to do this," she added, as we hatched our plan to talk to other parents of kids who ride that bus.

I felt the same way. I had taken my complaint to the instigator first but had not been heard. My kid noticed it too, saying, "I don't think he was really listening to you." (Some of that was going both ways by the end of that confrontation, wasn't it?) Now I had to work my way up the chains that connect him to these children.

We knocked on the doors where the kids live who ride the same bus. We surprised everyone with our story, but everyone to a person exhibited the proper disgust and outrage at the behaviors we described. One kid said she felt the driver had singled her out for teasing "a few times," too. I felt bad for my timing with a fellow mom who was in the eye of a hurricane of houseguests and activities, but she was concerned and said she'd definitely call me in the morning if she couldn't call back tonight.

After I had dropped a one-minute rundown of the situation as we saw it on hurricane mom, the other child whom the driver had targeted in his little "game" came up to me, looked me right in the eye, and said, enunciating every word: "I know exactly what you are talking about."

"Thanks for telling me that. I really appreciate it." I told him warmly, meaning every word.

I was bursting with pride by then, in every one of us. I told another neighbor mom, who was just as disturbed as I but added that her kids wouldn't be affected after this year because they were changing schools anyway and they'd be carpooling. I told her I told my kid she doesn't have to ride this bus ever again. I think she was chewing on that when we walked back home.

The details kept rolling in. The puzzle pieces weren't creating a picture I relished seeing, but it was one clear picture nonetheless. My little one remembered how the driver would act nice to her and say she looked cute, but she didn't feel like he meant it. She said sometimes he would "lie down across the seats" and block a kid from getting to the seats in the back "until it's time for me to drive the bus," he'd say.

She had started feeling anxious about having to ride the bus home, and they are only on the bus for about two minutes. She told me the driver never teased them during the times they were parked on the bus circle with the doors open, when a grown-up might hear him, or when they were getting off the bus where we awaited them at the park. "He always says things when we're driving." During the two-minute ride.

Now I think back to when I came down hard on a neighbor's kid for teasing my kid a certain way and I'm sad that the solution I advocated to her was to "sit up front near the bus driver." Ugh. This is a moment when parenting flat out hurts.

But I have been praising her to the skies lately for being so brave, for trusting her feelings and instincts, and for telling me what she needed me to know so I could protect her. And I didn't give her any special reward (unless you count the popsicle in the afternoon and the ice cream dessert -- it was hot today!). But I didn't associate the sweets with the events of the day. I wanted all that good feeling about doing the right thing and protecting our friends to be its own reward, and I felt like a good, strong mama for that, too.

Of course I also felt a little sorrow at my own loss, at the fact that I didn't always have someone who knew better in my court when it counted. That my mother didn't have anyone in her court either, until she started to see what was right and wrong and aligned with people who had her best interests at heart for the first time in her life. My mother still apologizes to me for what she could not possibly have learned from her own emotionally challenged parents nor my messed-up cookie of a father.

It is great to be all the mama bear I have become, though. I see so much value in protecting my little kid and letting her be little as long as she wants to stretch that out, because there's no going backward once you've left the land of little-kiddom. I see no reason to force her to watch scary, violent films early in her life, nor to make her aware of stuff she can't even conceive of yet. With my own experience and hindsight, I see no value in making her cross lines like these before she's ready, willing, and able. Before it's all about her choices.

One of the reasons I knew she was telling the truth, I told her, was that none of this was coming from her. She's not going around making eyes at the other kid, and the other kid's not doing any of this in her direction (and in fact has said he likes her as a friend). This is why I found it so inappropriate and disturbing that the bus driver was projecting this onto them. During their two-minute ride home. (That's the detail I'm choking on at the moment. Those seem to come in waves.)

Standard disclaimer: This all happened today; other events recounted occurred within the last two weeks. I stand by every detail. I can verify times, calls made and received, verbal exchanges, etc. My daughter's story hasn't changed since she has started telling it to me. (I told her she was a good detective. She's done a fantastic thing in recalling exactly what it was about him that made her feel uncomfortable.)

Tomorrow: Taking it Upstairs

14 May 2009

Be decisive with an egg

Thought of a good memory today: I was cooking an egg, something I learned to do early in my life. But I must have been dithering somehow, because my father passed along a bit of advice. "Be decisive with eggs." It was good, timely advice he had once been given, and it helped me become a better cook of eggs and many other dishes. Many people's advice and skills contributed to my learning the skills that have turned out to be the among the most important skills, but that advice has helped me many times over.

You do know why this is a skill worth an extra mention, right? If you need to flip a pair of fried eggs, you'll have a better chance of leaving the yolks unbroken if a) you use good, fresh eggs, and b) you firmly and quickly slide your spatula under the eggs and turn them gently in your well oiled and well heated pan. You have commit to cooking your egg because it does not take much time to cook an egg.

Heated olive oil and butter at 7 on the stove dial, untill the butter foams, then the foam begins to subside. You may need to reduce the heat. Cook the egg until it is a little softer than you prefer, for it will keep cooking for another minute or two after you remove it from the heat.

09 May 2009

More on my little sociopath*

Once I had labeled that man by his correct name, in yesterday's blog post, I said I could think of a thousand examples, and I've been mentally listing them ever since. Here are a few things that have come up today.

Learning how to feel deserving came later than I expected, but I am glad I got there eventually. More than ten years ago, a dear friend whom we had followed around the Bay Area moved here, right around the time we decided to move back. She didn’t find her niche here, and during her stay in our home state she decided she wanted to be a screenwriter, so she took herself off to L.A. to make a go of it. Before she moved away, my friend essentially gave me her job. I started doing the work and realized I was well suited to it. I had a great skill set and the technical aptitude for the work. I quickly became an integral part of a team of developers; they liked working with me because I caught on quickly and wasn’t intimidated when I interviewed them about how the product was supposed to work and along the way was able to find out how it really worked and do a better job writing about it as a result.

But after my friend “gave” me her job, it took me a while to feel I truly deserved it. (She didn't really give me the job at all; the company she worked for hired me, after she recommended me and I was screened and interviewed and successfully worked through my first year there as a contractor and they made me a permanent employee. But I still didn’t feel deserving on some level. In part, my salary had nearly doubled over my previous job’s within the space of a year; it grew even more soon after when they raised salaries to achieve pay parity with our Bay Area compatriots at the same company.

So I have long puzzled over why I didn’t keep up with that friend when she moved back to California. For I still love and admire her greatly, but I was uncomfortable with her after that. Just today, with this cascade of thoughts and experiences I have been recontextualizing having read Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door, I finally had an insight about that. I think it wasn’t just that I didn’t feel deserving. I had come to feel I had taken something that didn’t belong to me. That if I had something that good, I must have acquired it by dubious means. On some subconscious level I think I felt I stole that job. Or maybe I felt too indebted to her, that I could never repay her and therefore our relationship would be forever imbalanced (because that job was such a huge gift to me and enabled us to buy our house and live where we wanted to live). And what do we do when we feel we have wronged someone somehow? We avoid them (well, those of us who have a conscience about what we've done). Looking back I see how silly an idea that was, but it fits in with all the other ideas and thoughts that have been coming up since I recognized my father for what he is.

Another “cascade moment” for me, as I this morning dubbed this flow of recollections that like puzzle pieces are all clicking neatly into place and revealing the big, bad picture, was one I came about by a weird little set of associations this morning.

I was listening to the Grateful Dead song “Uncle John’s Band,” which comes up in the random rotation every so often. And I smiled at the line about telling the “fire from the ice,” because this phrase had been a mondegreen for me, a misheard lyric that I had long heard as “the buyer from the price.” I think I was 25 or 30 when I first looked up and said, “Hold on, that makes no sense!” and went to look up the real lyric, or maybe noticed a friend not closing their lips in the same places and ways I was.

It made me think of how everything was always being measured and valued and calculated when I was growing up. Trust was one. It was as if there was a finite supply of trust between me and my father that he was always judging to come up short for some reason I had given him to mistrust me: a fib or fudge or lie he caught me in. Some of it must have been lost to evaporation; there was always less than I thought there should have been.

And the valuation of things and people, the continual calculation, meant we, my father's wife and children, were just a drain. He made us feel that way, too, when he doled out little bits of money to my mother for groceries or refused to pay for school activities that I wanted to participate in. My mother said when she had precancerous symptoms, he told her, “You should go to a different doctor. They’re just after your money.” Much later she said to herself, “What money?” We didn’t have any, according to my father. In high school, he was reporting a yearly income of $14,000, probably so those evil colleges I was thinking of attending couldn’t get any of our money.

My sister recently told my mother she thinks the business he owned and operated for years was more or less a front, that he had money independently all along, from his father and from whatever side deals he had going. This fits, too; "The Shop" was a source of stability and identity (look at that man with his own business! Providing for his family!), but it was also his alibi (“I had to work late; Dave didn’t drop his car off until I was about to leave and then I had to shoot the shit with Ben when he came to pick up his car.”), a respectable cover, a place to meet with the guys and do what he wanted behind the shop’s rolling door. Sure, he did some work there and came home with black fingernails and stinking of grease and solvent, but when I started asking him about the reputations of other mechanics and other shops in town, as an adult who had chosen not to buy a pre-fuel-injection Volvo, he’d always say something like, “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them.” Funny how every other mechanic in town was crooked but he was so upright. He always said he was better because he would explain how things worked and why they didn’t to his customers, and this time was his gift to them. In retrospect I think that was more patter, more sleight-of-mouth, so to speak, and I think a lot of his customers were bored to tears by those lengthy explanations and just wished they could pay him for his work and take their cars home. Most of them, unlike him, were probably not avoiding going home to their families; the ones that were avoiding their nearest and dearest often became his fans, his new shop buddies, his new alibis.

Another, more recent, memory of him telling me about his type of woman. "I like my women slender, pretty, and needy," he said. Rich, or at least financially independent, seems to have been a more recent addition to his list. He doesn't want someone who is after his money. He wants someone he can dominate, and who makes him look good.

I am thinking back to when my aunt told me that my father is “heartbroken” about not having us close to him, but remembering how I felt during the last couple of Thanksgiving gatherings I went to at his place, it felt hollow, like we were all arranged there to maintain his ideal image of himself, but not because he really cared for us. (Remember what he said to my aunt when he saw his granddaughter’s picture? “She’s getting away from me.” And I knew I'd made the right decision in excising him from my life.) Now I hear those words from my aunt and I think, “What heart? Because I haven’t seen much evidence of one.”

The advice Martha Stout gave about following the rule of threes was great, but saddened me, too. The rule is if someone lies or hurts you three times, that’s when you know to run, to cut them out of your life. Because once is an honest mistake, and twice, well, things happen. But three times reveals a habit of deceit and tells you who they are. What’s sad is that I can easily come up with ten lies. And if I can so easily come up with that many, it calls everything he ever said and did that seemed genuine or sincere into question.

* Because he is littler and littler, in my mind: not only physically diminished from the big, scary, imposing guy he once was, but as a human being. He's melllllltinnnng! (Say it in your best Wicked Witch of the West voice.)

08 May 2009

My very own sociopath next door

Some days I question my willingness to write about troublesome topics close to me here on this blog, but I keep coming back to the need to tell my side of my story, because my father has never, ever accepted my version, my truths. Having just finished reading a book called The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, I have a new perspective on why that is: I don't believe he has a conscience, and so finally I see why my version of the story will never, ever match up with his. Ever.

One of the questions the book left me pondering relates to Stout's contention that sociopaths have no conscience and therefore never see a problem with themselves that needs addressing or fixing. This fits my experience; when told by people near and supposedly dear to him that he had dangerous behaviors that adversely affected not just him but others around him, he always accused everyone else of trying to manipulate him. He never saw us as trying to help him. Now I see why he couldn't conceive of that. But what I am left wondering is whether there are people without a conscience who believe themselves to have a conscience, in their own limited fashion. I think my birthfather sees himself as a moral and upright man; it's just that he doesn't have much capacity for compassion and so can't have a very well developed sense of obligation to others.

Reading that book gave me about fifty aha! moments. I saw a thousand instances where we, as his family, were arranged and manipulated: to make him look like a good person, to provide a cover for his other actions and activities, to be toyed with: battered physically or emotionally into silence or cowering fear. Meanwhile I was supposed to prove that He was Right about raising his children unconventionally, even though the reality of that included a dead child, and meant abuses like subjecting his children to active (as opposed to benign) neglect and countless dangerous situations.

The aha! moment that clinched the author's premise for me was when she related "Hannah's" story. Hannah's father had been a high school principal in a small midwestern city, married and with a daughter (Hannah) who had been accepted to medical school when he went after an unarmed intruder with the gun he kept in his closet and shot him dead outside their home. Hannah's father was convicted of manslaughter, because the attack had been in the street instead of inside their home, which would have been a self-defense killing. The community was in an uproar, and mostly on his behalf: he had no criminal record or known history of violence, and so folks in his community protested the severity of his sentence. It took Hannah years to understand that in many, many ways, her father had not been the nice person or loyal family member he had presented himself as being.

A few years later, Hannah worked up the nerve to visit him in prison. The thing was, Hannah said, she would have expected someone in her father's situation -- in prison, with little to no contact with family nor friends over a couple of years -- to be dejected and downcast. Instead, Hannah said, she was surprised to see this glint in his eye, as if this was the most exciting thing to happen to him in a long time.

When I read Hannah's story, I remembered how I felt when my father came back from Mexico telling the story of his month in a Guatemalan jail for trying to bring fireworks into Mexico in the back of his car, something that would have never occurred to anyone else I know. To him it was just another adventure, another story for him to tell. With that same glint in his eye, he told us far more than we cared about the guys who make hammocks in jail. He brought back hammocks that he then resold to people -- I wheedled hard to get him to give me one. (They are nice hammocks, after all.) But as he told that story again and again after he returned from that journey, I realized I did not want to hear another one of his stories, ever again, and that was when I made the decision to tell him: Don't call me. If I want to get in touch, I will.

Since then he has asked if we could talk, so that he could share his perspective. But I feel I already know what his perspective is, and it's all about him and how we have wrongly judged him. But I'm just not buying what he's selling anymore.

In some ways it seems unhealthy to keep circling this drain that is my father, but reading this book felt like finding a key piece of the puzzle, and talking with my mother is especially reassuring. We keep telling each other, yes, it really was that bad. He really was that bad. And I do feel sad about it, but for me and my mother and stepmother and sisters and brother, and not so much anymore than for his having inherited a lousy set of tools from his parents, which is the story I had been telling until now. Now I feel I am see him more clearly than ever for who and what he really is.

There were so many little flashes of recognition reading that book, and my sadness now comes in response to my beliefs as a child that this was all good and right and normal during my formative years: the thrill-seeking, the substance abuse, the moving from place to place, the moving from person to person without having true intimate attachments to people, the apparent respect and private disdain for others. I could cite a thousand examples, general and specific.

But I liked this book in part not just because it reinforced some things I've only just started to realize about my father, but also because it validated the idea that I did the right thing in cutting him out of my life. Stout says as soon as you see the patterns -- the excessive charm/allure, flattery, the desire for you to pity them as soon as they are in a tight spot, the I'm-right-and-all-you-idiots-are-all-wrong thinking -- the best way to protect yourself from this person is to run. To cut them out of your life completely. This is what I have done, and it feels like it's helped me start moving on with my own life.

Oddly, I told my mother, the book also gave me more compassion for a college writing teacher of mine, the poet Lucille Clifton, who said she could not believe a father would drive drunk with his children in the backseat, as I wrote about in one of my poems. Now I see that despite all the evils she believed in (slavery, hell, the abuse of women), she couldn't fully conceive of a true sociopath. Lucky her, I said to my mother.

26 April 2009

Funny things about us

Yesterday I remembered my friend's theory that when you're in love, that line of hair grows between your belly-button on down.

Today I found the little jar of civet musk that my mother insisted on giving to me because she had to buy some and got too much to keep for herself. What, for all the home perfume making she and I have been doing? No (and no, we're not home perfume designers), because it's this rare extract from a civet cat. Had to have it, just the way she had to stop to check raccoons for a mojo (she finally found one, but not when she was with me, thank goodness). My mother used to eat dirt as a kid -- now of course it's a syndrome with a name: pica. This dirt-seeking must have horrified her genteel mother, born in the early 1900s and escaping Oklahoma as quickly as she learned what it meant to be from there.

I am sure I have bizarre beliefs too, manias that manifest themselves in ways that puzzle my pals. I make up stories when nothing's happening. But right now they all seem so commonplace to me that I can't pick them out.

25 April 2009

Believe it!

Today I am amazed that it's taken me this long to find out what I believe:

I believe in my existence here on this planet.

I believe in dancing, and music, listening, singing, making, or...?

I believe that if there's a "god," or God, we're way too small to know what and why that god-entity is doing.

I believe that concept it's easier for me to understand if I stick an extra "o" in "God": Good.

Conversely, I believe in love. The love of family, including all the friends who become one's adult family along the way.

I believe faith is an appealing idea. As a reality, I've never quite found the right fit. I have faith in the ever-unfolding quality of the world. Everything must pass.

As my mother has always said, "Karma is Karma, neh?"

I believe there's an untapped synergy between the mind and the gut

I believe the medical-industrial complex has egregiously mismatched its collective delusion about what they can fix with their pharmaceutical formulas and created worse problems for many, many people, just because of unexpected side effects of multiple drug interactions.

I believe writing and editing help me stay afloat and move through my life in a constructive way. Without them I could have gone off the rails as a teenager.

I believe listening to all those Who and Stones and Dead and Michael Penn and Michael Franti and Sheryl Crow and Neil Finn and Gomez lyrics has shaped me in ways I'm still trying to understand -- and make the most of.

I love films and yet persist in believing I have an obligation not only to receive stories but also to tell some of my own.

I believe in being a warm lap for a kitty or kid, or a sweetheart.

I believe any two adults of sound mind should legally be able to decide they are lifelong partners. Like I said, I believe in love.

I believe loving and being loved by my husband and daughter makes me a better person every day.

20 March 2009

Food Safety Monsantoization Act of 2009

Oooh, I think we need to do it: Take back our food.

My mind is racing with the possibilities. If this Garden to Table group at my daughter's school could get six beautiful planting beds built and filled with new plants just like that, more people could do sooooo much more. Just today I thought, why not turn another corner of our yard into a neighborhood kids' garden? I have pent-up energy here, along the urge to dig into spring soil, too.

Happy turning of the seasons, and welcome back spring and warm earth and big snows!

But really, back to this gardening thing. We need to grow more of our food supply. There's a bill lurking in a House committee right now, HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. Sounds all right, and has the sound of sweeping legislation, which we need, right? It says it's all about creating a new Food Safety Administration from some of the existing FDA infrastructure.

But wait. There's more.

It doesn't just spin off a new agency from the Food and Drug Administration, an idea that doesn't sound half bad. Instead, it's more like 1984, with food as the focus. I am not kidding. Read it. Or visit this site, which has a great analysis.

The first section my eyes darted to was the list of prohibitions.

Now, as an intellectual exercise and a favor to me, before you are further biased by anything I've said so far (whoops!), ask yourselves who would want such sweeping legislation, legislation that would criminalize farmers who refuse to toe Big Ag's lines?

The answer: Monsanto, among others. Gee, what an anticlimactic answer, I know. But there it is.

So here's where to register your outrage: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

I can't just leave you with that, though. Here's something cool and inspiring one of the Garden to Table folks sent me, as an antidote: http://www.youtube.com/user/dervaes?ob=1


Edit: Just saw a link to a blog post by Jill Richardson about what Monsanto really is lobbying for. Good information from the La Vida Locavore blog, which I just learned is a forum for anyone interested in food and food politics.

16 March 2009

That great dinner party in the sky

Just thinking about how odd a question that is: "If you could have some famous person over for dinner, who would it be?"

As if we're all going to get this one magical opportunity to bring someone back to life (or bring someone alive to where we are), and we're going to sit down over a three- or four-hour meal and figure out how to change the world or hear about what it's like to be Miley Cyrus if that's your pick.

I liked the idea someone on Twitter had: "Who would you have over for dinner this week?" It takes the pressure off. You can have Gandhi over this week, and Mother Teresa over next week.

13 March 2009

How fresh was it?

I posted this on Twitter a while ago, but tweets are so fleeting and I love this so much I have to spread it around, share the laughter:

From a Yelp review of a restaurant near me:

Everything tasted really fresh, like a Grand-Master Flash mixtape.

12 March 2009

An incredible life

Some randomly recollected sayings about food, inspired by Michael Pollan's project:

Finish your plate; there are children starving in China/Ethiopia.

If it smells bad, it is bad.

Stepgrandma: If it tastes good, put soap on it.

And an influential song lyric: "Only two things money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes!" -Guy Clark

Another memory: "Let go, let God."

We saw it on bumperstickers (the ones with iridescent-under-black "Easy Does It"), and we heard people say it. To my father, however, it was a complete abdication of all responsibility for one's own thoughts and decisions. To him it was Christians admitting what was wrong with their religion right up front.

It's only now that I can even perceive the alternative, which would be like resting your head on your own pillow at the end of the day: something you know you can relax and rely upon to hold you, to comfort you, to give you respite or renewal. It is only now that I can conceive of being able to rest one's concerns about whether there's a God, or a good, or an Allah or an other, much less exactly what they might be responsible. But Everything?! my mind protests. I don't understand!

Which I think is the point to which I always return. I don't understand. I can't. I'm too small, too imperfect. I can perfect myself/be perfected, which is why I keep getting up every day to see what I can get done today.

But there's still this reckoning I'm doing -- I find I'm having trouble getting on with it, wrapping up and letting go of the past. Have I come to use it as a crutch? The college friend I just found is a lawyer in Los Angeles, and the last place I saw her was in her incredibly old house she lived in with her housemates. I made the faux pas of wiping a floor spill with the kitchen sponge, which called attention to how impregnated with the wear of years that floor was. She had a complicated backstory too, but was on the Erin Brockovich track, uncovering the appallingly public health hazards of living in California's Central Valley (now common knowledge http://www.cababstractsplus.org/abstracts/Abstract.aspx?AcNo=19900500664 but she was one of those covering that story early on). Clearly she wouldn't be where she is if she'd leaned on a crutch, made her refrain, "Oh, how I've been wronged." She must have gone out and said, "I'm going to prove it to those idiots who didn't believe in me every day. I'm going to have an incredible life."

My kid has a great grasp of the existential already. About Webkinz, the popular stuffed animals that have online counterparts the kids can manipulate on the web, my daughter asked, "So if Webkinz are our pets, are we Webkinz' pets?"

09 March 2009

Why would you want to publish your writing on the internet?

I wrote this in preparation for leading my writing group's workshop today. We met this morning and I spoke about these points. I gave a little Twitter demonstration.

Do you feel there are differences between writing for print and writing online? If so, why? If not, why not? Let's discuss. (We did and agreed that length is a key consideration, because of the limited time and attention people have online; and that one has very little time to attract the interest of an online reader.)

A software developer friend of ours, a fully-grown Bart Simpson-type who has worked at various software-company startups around Boulder, was working on a social media application a couple of years ago. I pooh-poohed it when I first heard about it, although back in 2000, I had been intrigued by the promise of mobile networking software that would -- gasp -- allow you to see which people in your social network were in your vicinity and even where they were.

"Why would you want that?" I demanded. I was still resisting owning a cell phone then.

"Well, there are lots of reasons..." he started, but I had lost interest.

For me, it took seeing Twitter to understand the potential of this idea.

As soon as I tried it out, I was intrigued by the way you could start following anyone. It was the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game in a social networking application, and it was proving my theory that really we are probably no more than two or three degrees of separation from most people we would be interested in meeting personally or interacting with professionally.

I found that just being myself and posting updates on the things that stood out at random moments, I had a couple of hundred followers in a fairly short time. And I wasn't aggressively trying to court new followers by following lots and lots of people; it was just a steady progression. I'd follow a few new people every day, choosing a couple of new people to follow here, and a couple more there. Some would follow me in response; others didn’t; others didn’t immediately but started following me a while later.

Today, it takes just a few minutes to start a new account on Twitter, or start a blog on Blogger, LiveJournal, or WordPress. You can apply interesting styles and templates to make your home page look playful or clean or unique; just select your favorite color scheme, or something pleasing that reflects a side of you you're itching to put out there. Any piece of writing has a place online today.

When I sit down to write, I feel like I am mining. I look for the vein. What can I tell that no one has already pulled out of this? What burden must I offload today? What am I most nervous about writing about, what scares the living hell right out of me, or what could make my mother/husband/best friend/a stranger cry?

When I clear enough space in my life -- an hour here, twenty minutes there, or a minute, I invite something in: Okay, I'm ready, I say, sitting down at my keyboard. My intentions fall somewhere along the spectrum from wanting to share a good tip, spin a good yarn, or give myself a little free therapy for my wounded heart. One way I can do this is by writing about those charged moments, the ones that can be the clearest harbingers of what needs to be done next. But sometimes it's just as satisfying to write a haiku about cats or the wild winds.

Twitter has shown me it's a good time in history to start our own channels, to become the pillars of our own media empires, to speak our own truths to power, and to cheer on the big and little things that make our day different from the last. What I see when I look around at the wild world of publishing online is that every kind of writing has a place.

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See writes:
"Here are a few things you might write about: Travel, anything from an around -the-world jaunt to the one-hundred-mile trip to see your wife's parents. Camping. Life in RVs. Sexual function. Sexual dysfunction. Good kids. Bad kids. Your weird childhood. Your happy childhood. Whales. Fishing. Hunting. Cooking. Tequila. Keeping a neat house. Keeping a sloppy house. Sleeping pills. Hamburgers. "Profiles" of anybody you happen to know. Alternative medicine. How you got cancer and got better, or didn't. Whatever you're interested in now. "

She's not exaggerating; there are blogs and tweets galore about all of those things and many more.

On Twitter, I'm interested in reaching out to people, but the social scientist in me would also like to see if I can grow a following who will be willing to take risks by investing in each others' work. Like microloans, if everyone gives just a little, everyone weaves a tighter social net, the kind that can even help catch you if you fall. The other night, a friend sent out a message on Twitter that a fellow who had published a children's book just needed a few more people to buy his book and his bank would give him a loan. I saw another person raise more than $25,000 to build new wells in Africa; I was one of the many people who contributed a small amount toward making someone's dream a reality.

So I write my tweets and blog posts with the hope that advancing my own ideas can benefit all of us in some small way. I hope to build connections this way, much in the way that holding a baby or petting an animal stimulates the production of oxytocin and builds trust between people and animals. You know how we tell kids, "There's no such thing as a stupid question, because chances are if you are wondering about it, there is at least one more person wondering about the same thing." Well, I write with the same hope: that if these things are on my mind, someone, somewhere might find it useful to see me attempt to verbally sort them out. And I write hoping to reduce the degrees of separation between us.

Big changes are underfoot in the information revolution. The print media are crumbling, and publishing may mean something completely different five years ago from what it means today. One day, information-gathering "bots" will roam the internets, grouping writings by not only genre or author or titles, but by subjects, themes, settings, or even regional dialects, as easily as we can look up old friends and flames on Google today. So what's most important now is to gather our stories, our thoughts, and our ideas in one place.

Just as we can't find others we're interested in if they don't write and share what they're working on, the same goes for us. We have to not only write down our most pressing ideas but we must also allow others to see what we do. I believe we owe it to each other, to the world, to use our time here to make our mark, whether the exercise has at its center the preservation of family beliefs, values, and rituals; the personal catharsis of storytelling; or a desire to inflict the emotional earthquakes of shock and fear that remind us we are lucky to be alive. The internet has made this easier than ever.

A couple of links to get you started with online publishing: