Plunk-plunk-plunk.  Yes, that’s me, sitting at the upright Hamilton piano that I bought for my son’s lessons music eight years ago. He’s playing Mozart these days, and it moves me. After years of nagging him, years of wheedling him to practice and get off his latest electronic device and shlepp with me to lessons, years of mediating between him and his formidable tower of a piano teacher; years of listening to my son go plunk-plunk-plunk--magic happened. Sonatas flow from his dancing adolescent hands. He turns to the piano, our piano, to pass the time, to express his rage and delight and curiosity. Music is a daily member of this household. It’s a priceless joy for my family to watch and listen as the process unfolds and blossoms and crystallizes.

Good for him, and for us. The used piano bought during a university sale at the University of California has fulfilled its purpose. Those two years of piano payments, plus the ongoing lesson fees, like braces, never going away.  Happy ending. Right?

Well, not exactly. I’d always intended to learn to play, too. I come from a family of musicians and artists. On my seventh birthday I received a guitar, and I learned to play it, kinda sorta (“Where have all the flowers gone?”). There was, of course, all that nagging and wheedling to practice going on then too, but in reverse, with me winning out by NOT practicing (and NOT winning out, as we all know now). So, no guitar playing.  I dabbled in singing too. My sister Irene has a gorgeous voice; she has always been the singer. My sister Ann played piano and violin well as a child, and she plays still.

Oh, and I have a famous Grammy award winning cousin, Peter Nero, who is one of the best piano players in the world. I’ve got that blood too.

But me? Nah. I tried some lessons, tried some plunking. And gave it up. I’m an adult now; no one can wheedle me into submission and competence.

Then, a month ago, I saw Peter Nero play at Copley Symphony Hall here in San Diego. We had awesome seats thanks to him and his daughter, my cousin, Beverly (also a musician and artist and producer, etc.). I saw, and heard, the absolute chemistry of piano and player when a lifetime of dedication and study has occurred along with a sprinkle of magic and oodles of brilliance and creativity. My cousin was a prodigy. I am a non-musician with a Beginning Piano book collecting dust on our piano.

Yet at that concert…something happened to me. Something kindle: a longing, a passion. I thought: why not?

Why not embrace something totally new? Instead of spending too much energy, time and emotion on the cares and worries and losses of “the back forty,” why not plunge into something difficult and fabulously new?

Why not challenge myself? After all, look at my mother. She’s trying to learn now, too. Goodness. Look at her…

So, here’s an alternative ending, and I like this one much, much better. I’ve been plunk-plunk-plunking. Every day. I swear it. I can play “Greensleeves” with two hands now. I can sing along with it. My son is helping me figure out the notes and squiggles and all that damn counting. And I am helping myself.

Okay, I’m not a musician and may never be. But I am playing piano, all by myself.

I love it. It’s my new best thing.

What’s yours?

Free download on Kindle!

 

 In this brave new world of electronic books, this brave new writer actually bought a Kindle.  Seems obscene to make one's books available in Kindle and then not buy one.  What was my hesitation in the first place?

At first I felt...kind of panicky.  Like: OH NO, not eliminating BOOKS!  Please nonononono, not books going the way of the dinosaur and the do-do bird and the VCR.  Please don't make my passion obsolete.  Dear Civilization, don't brush away my anchor under a fusty 20th century carpet.

Then I calmed down and looked and listened.  Watched other people--yes, book lovers and story tellers and story listeners--download books for a ridiculously cheap price.  A small humbug still resounded in my ears.  Like: it took me 3 years to write TWICE BEGUN.  At $2.99, that's one dollar per year if I got 100% royalties, which I don't.  Hmpf.  And what about SILENT BIRD? I wrote and rewrote that book for probably 20 years.  At $1.99 per book, how much is that a year?  Don't think they make money that small.

Then I calmed down some more and took stock of the changing world and my place in it.  I marveled at other people's books sitting on their tablet.  How neat! How easy! How portable!  OK, kind of fun too, like a grown up Etch-a-Sketch for books.  I saw all those cheap books as more stories at our worldly fingerprints.  

Then I got a Kindle for my birthday.  I bought it a pink cover.  I bought books.  I downloaded samples.  I eyeballed my own book and even read a few sentences.  And the change in emotion came to me in a rush: I LIKE THIS!  I don't like it more than hard copy books.  I love bookcases with all those spines lining my home.  But...still...I like this too.  One can enjoy change. One can flow with time.  One can find a new way to absorb and relish and weave stories.

Then the next hurdle...why FREE promotions of cheap electronic books?  At first I was skeptical, even suspicious.  How low can we writers sink that we give away our books?  Do we have to?  Is it part of the marketing thing (yuk). If not, then why?

Well, the next inevitable step was for me to start blogging.  A blog is free, period.  A blog is writing.  A blog is community in this weird new world way.  A blog is a column in the virtual world newspaper.  A blog reaches people: the original reason for writing, I still do believe.

So, back to free promotions.  One time in 2013 I started a free promotion for Twice Begun and thousands of people downloaded it.  Thousands of people reading that story.  That story spreading throughout the globe (I think, I hope).  I don't know anything else about those faceless listeners, but this whole thing isn't about me, or any other writer.  It's about the story.  Twice Begun, meet people.  Go forth in the world.

Yes, in the end I understand free promotions the way I understand computer viruses and cell phone technology. I'm in this world with my books trying out weird new stuff and kinda sorta loving it and kinda sorta wishing we could go back in time to a simpler book culture.

Anyway.  My Kindle has a great new novel on it.  My bookshelf has several.  Gotta go, but before I do, here is the link for my second book, SILENT BIRD, on Amazon Kindle.  The book will be FREE tomorrow, February 5 and Thursday, February 6th for all folks interested and willing to press a button.

Hope you enjoy it!

Reina

 http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Bird-Reina-Lisa-Menasche-ebook/dp/B00H7OLCG8

su

 

January 22, 2014

 

Dear Dad:

Two years ago today you died.  I don’t know how I feel right now.  Numb, mostly, I think, or maybe that’s healing.  Grieving seems to be like an intermittent stomach ache: like, hey! I feel okay again! And then I want to curl up in bed and put the heating pad on my stomach and cry. Life will never be completely whole, completely unbroken…as it never is for anyone.  I guess life just changes shape, its broken off bits rounding off and smarting frequently, leaving us yearning for the whole cloth that is not really gone, just not tangible; we can’t hold it in our hands any longer, though our hands have muscle memory of the shape and texture. I was lucky to have you for so many years; I know that. I was lucky to have you as a father, period. And everyone loses their parents; I’m so very lucky to still have mom. “C’est la vie,” as the French say (I can hear you making fun of that!). After all, you lost your father, too, and your father lost his.  Our human legacy. Well, sometimes I hate it.  Sometimes I want to kick death in the teeth.

I have no regrets, though.  I told you everything that I wanted to say.  I spent countless ordinary hours with you and mom. I watched news with you, listened as history came alive through your stories. I laughed at your jokes until I cried. I got mad at you sometimes, and you got mad at me. We forgave. You welcomed me when I was down. I held your hand while you were dying.

What I regret is simply that I can’t fill that dad-space. You’re still in it, of course, but the real vivid person walking around in his bathrobe and smelling of aftershave and making faces at my faces intermixed with your acute observations of people and life in a level of detail that most people never remember…all that close-up living, well, aches.  Remembering a beautiful landscape is not the same as walking in it.

I thank you for your wisdom, your unconditional love and acceptance, your great spirit that did not lie, did not pretend, did not achieve perfection and so stayed perfectly fallible and lovable and humble. We all miss you terribly, especially mom, your teenage bride.   

But talking to you feels good.  I hope you hear this message somehow.  Like you, I don’t speculate too much on that.  I’m not a scientist like you, but I’m a scientist’s daughter.

All my love,

Your youngest “product,”

Reina 

 

 

 

We have a polarized Congress, right?  C’mon, there really is no way else to describe it! Polarized. As in, “I see my point of view and not yours,” and “I view the world this way and don’t put a serious earnest effort into viewing the world your way.” In other words, I don’t bother with anyone else’s point of view, or POV, as we writers call it.

Congress writes their national and local dialogue in the first person only.  Never third person; never multiple viewpoints; never the ambiguous joy of putting oneself in the shoes of a character we really don’t get at all…and then actually getting that person, simply from the effort of writing in his or her POV.

This is not a political rant, mostly because if I engage in that right now then I will simply polarize my readers.

I don’t even choose to discuss the political divide engulfing my beloved country, at least not now. 

So I won’t comment on the caricatures, bitterness, and defensiveness that emanate from our elected leaders when dealing with the other side of the aisle—except I just did, huh? Commented on it.  What I mean is this: I’d like to make a small suggestion.

Congress, try writing fiction.  Just sit down at a computer or a notebook.  Choose a locale, choose a main character who wants to achieve something but has an obstacle (like, for example, running a country but can’t play nicely with one’s colleagues?).  Then write a section of the story from the viewpoint of one of those godforsaken colleagues, to take my example. Pretend you’re in his or her skin.  Think those thoughts. Notice what that character would notice. Feel the real feelings he or she might feel.  Zoom in close and hear the internal dialogue, the hopes, the fears, and the justifications (conscious or otherwise). Make each character fallible and human and with a personality and some kind of history and habits, good and bad. Make even the “bad guys” feel good inside, at least in part, because most people find a way to accept or forgive or excuse themselves.

Who cares what actually happens in the story? Yes, plot is critical and in the story of our dear Congress, what happens with the obstacles does in fact matter.  But this is just an exercise, remember?  Just a hobby that any public official can practice while sitting in interminable meetings or planning that love affair, or voting against something.

Write fiction and get close to your enemy…and maybe that enemy will look, well, a little more attractive.

Or not. 

At least you tried.  Maybe the whole country will benefit.

 

 

Why would anybody do this?

By “this” I mean sit nearly immobilized for 30 hours on a holiday weekend, hands on laptop keys, nose red and congested, with hot drinks nearby, cold medicine taken in bulk, brain addled and fogged and a little delirious. Why write a book when there are papers to grade, soups to heat, bills to pay, dishes to wash, house to decorate, curative sleep to be coaxed, coddled and hopefully enjoyed?

This is a profoundly stupid question because OF COURSE there is no reason except the story is there, in one’s head, amidst the other joys, tribulations, and chaos of a well-lived life.

Stories must come out. They must be borne.

Sometimes I think of it this way (when I think at all): Just as a painting “longs” to grace a wall, a story longs to be told. It does not need justification. It is its own justification.

In other words, stories only need to be, and if they are read, so much the better, for their existence solidifies and expands. And like the magic stuff of the universe that we call “matter,” a story cannot be destroyed at any time in any way. It only changes form: from a vague theme and a tinkering of ideas; to a playful sketch of time and place and person; to a euphoric weaving of untamed threads; to a nitpicking, tedious and mind-numbing editing process that makes you so crazy that you wonder if you’ll ever look at a book again. And then, finally—oh yes, finallyfinallyfinally—to the poignant and thrilling launch of “Baby” from the Nest into the vast, terrifying, and gleeful unknown.

In this particular case, the book is called Silent Bird, so this Nest metaphor seems especially apt. And the title may be Silent Bird, but the writing process was Noisy Bird, as this story has been swooping, plummeting, pecking, straggling, limping, and soaring around in my head for two decades now.  This story is my original grown up novel. It has experienced so many rewrites that it is definitely a candidate for dissociative identity disorder.

I can’t believe The Bird has finally flown!

Hallelujah. Let me get rid of the baby stuff and paint the room and get my hair done and go on a vacation.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll just write a blog entry and organize my January 11 book launch at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, an independent book store here in San Diego, and go rest my brain by watching the Simpsons on TV or maybe…wow, what a concept!...read a book.

I would like to thank my writer friends and workshop comrades. I would like to thank my family for putting up with me, and my computers for not crashing. I would like to thank the Southern California Writers Conference for honoring this story, and thus encouraging me, in 2009. I would like to thank Mysterious Galaxy for supporting local authors (Twice Begun on sale there now and Silent Bird in January). I would like to thank Mark Clements for his AWESOME book cover art and Irene Weiss for her wonderful song “Together Again,” which will go on my book trailer and hopefully, one day, the audiobook. I would also like to thank Top Hat Entertainment in New York, which is creating my newest book trailer.

More information about the Silent Bird book launch on January 11, 2014 will be forthcoming. In the meantime, the trade paperback will be available very soon. In the meantime, check out the Kindle version at the following link.

http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Bird-Reina-Lisa-Menasche-ebook/dp/B00H7OLCG8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1386694344&sr=1-1

Much love,

Reina

P.S. A picture book called THE HOUSE THAT SNEEZED will be coming soon! This is a book "written" by the protagonist in SILENT BIRD, and aims to help small children talk about and understand loss.  More news forthcoming...

 

 

 

I have a teenager.  Anyone else out there in cyberspace got one (or more) of those?

Not that I OWN my teenager!  Certainly not.  How would I figure out how to completely assimilate another identity as colorful, and usually much more colorful, than my own?  The National Institute of Mental Health confirms what I suspected, hoped and feared.  That is, that my teenager is not only “on loan” to me (my beloved Grandpa always did say to my parents that childhood is “borrowed time”), but he is not finished yet in BRAIN as well as body. 

The NIH: “It [the adolescent brain] is different from both a child's and an adult's in ways that may equip youth to make the transition from dependence to independence. The capacity for learning at this age, an expanding social life, and a taste for exploration and limit testing may all, to some extent, be reflections of age-related biology.”

Me: “So if that’s true, does a million hours of homework every day, including weekends, help him grow and develop, or does it turn said teenager into some kind of mad mini-adult dangling crumpled papers, forgotten permission slips, planners, binders, and enough schedules to befuddle the logistical powers of an Einstein?”

Consider the wise words of Carlsson-Paige, author of Taking Back Childhood and professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA (quoted in “The Washington Post”): “Kids need first-hand engagement — they need to manipulate objects physically, engage all their senses, and move and interact with the 3-dimensional world. This is what maximizes their learning and brain development.” 

Mm. Very interesting.

Carlsson may be primarily focusing on young children, who need actually live interaction with the world more than they need even “Sesame Street” (and don’t get me wrong; I LOVE Sesame Street!).  Nevertheless I believe that teenagers too—even, or maybe especially, grumpy, couch-potato, iPhone /iPad/Zombie obsessed ones—require real world experience to reach their full potential as human beings.

By this, I mean: “real-world” as in sitting-around-time with nothing pressing to do.

I mean: “I’m bored” time lying around outside contemplating the universe (even at the risk of finding “trouble” instead). 

I mean: Let’s-find-some-balance time by actually hanging out in the living room with the fam, and without notebooks and laptop and assignment sheets. 

I also know that scores on standardized tests matter.  In these hard economic times, college more than matters.  And I realize that schools are trying to help American students “keep up.” Believe me, as a school social worker and university instructor, I am woefully aware of how low skilled some of our high school graduates can be.

But what about…heck, old-fashioned FUN?  Going out for ice cream and hanging out on bikes, scooters, whatever?  Lying on the grass, playing with the (neglected) dog? Even hanging on the fence, or loitering in malls! Just simply FEELING and PROCESSING the world pass by in a kaleidoscope of speeds and colors and activities. 

Not—please!—just racing from day to day, assignment to assignment, like a harried, overworked, underpaid adult in midlife crisis…

I’d like to say this is not a rant.  Sorry.  This is a rant.  My kid doesn’t HAVE to take AP classes, you might counter.  Well.  Don’t Advanced Placement classes mimic college?  They earn college credit, right, and save us (in the self-same hard economic times) thousands of dollars?  And although I did not go to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia, I don’t recall anyone in college doing as many hours of homework as my tenth grade kid.  Maybe pre-med folks did.  I don’t know. 

My son’s a quick kid, too, with good grades.  I SEE the quantity of assignments with my very eyes.  It makes my brain hurt just watching him work.

So.  There.  I’m. Done. With. My. Rant.

But let me highlight the main point again.  Our school system seems to me like misguided parents who want to teach their children to be responsible and so don’t let them go out of the house to get sunshine and fresh air and exercise, except for when those children are too tired / stressed / overwhelmed to enjoy it.

I happen to believe that creativity and critical thinking—the ability to USE said brain in all life’s challenges, not just academic ones—is essential to brain, body and soul.

I also have a bit of a selfish motive here.  I can’t stand the look of “You have got to be kidding me; this is what growing up means?” on my 15-year-old’s face.

But…maybe I’m projecting.  Sometimes, I bet, that look is only on my face.  I can’t describe the look on his.  I just know it’s…well…a little, shall we say, over the top?

You know your dog. 

You know your dog almost as much as your dog knows you. 

Right?

I mean: if you are angry when you come home from work, Dog watches apprehensively, tail erupting in a speculative wag of joy before—wait for it…!—the next one.  OK to spaz out completely? Doggy’s eyes plead.  Can your lousy work day please tolerate it?

If you are sad, who is the first to notice?  Who shlumps on the sofa, nose down, to sigh and bear your weight for you?  When you are discouraged, so is Dog.  When you are happy, Dog is in a state of bliss.  Dogs are our extensions, our better selves, our cherished icons of acceptance and play and loyalty and love.

My Dog needed something.  Therapy?  Me to quit jobs and stay home more?  More vigorous and frequent walks in the same old neighborhood (yanking on the leash because all Dog wants to do is pee on weeds)?  More growling and barking at the passel of psychotically yipping Chihuahuas penned in the yard across the street?

No.  Oh my, no.  The remedy for a listless, glum looking dog who may be in the midst of a midlife crisis is…dog beach.

Allow me to back up a step.  Our dog is named Pumpernickel (Yes, like the dog in my novel TWICE BEGUN, though I promise that I am NOT Paris Jablonski!).  When my son was small he announced he wanted to own a dog named Pumpernickel.  He didn’t know “Pumpernickel” meant bread.  He only knew what he needed, and Pumpernickel he indeed got.  We kinda do food names at our house.  Cat named Nutty.  Cat named Apples.  Cat named Milky (aka “Malachite”).  Dog named Pumpernickel.

THIS dog…Pumpernickel…is sweet, jealous, social, affectionate and not interested in going alone to the backyard.  She has been a moody little thing lately, miffed about her owners’ daily activities out there in the world without her.

I did not know what to think. I have never had a dog before.  I never did understand the allure of a beach where my ever so jealous dog could run off leash to bark at and, thus unfettered, attack every other dog daring to breathe in my air space. 

I did not see how a disobedient small dog that had once attacked a horse (because I petted it) could become significantly happier by a short, stressful trip to the beach.

I didn’t get it.  Now I do.

Today I could have blogged about something serious or tragic, like the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington.  I could have blogged about the problems in Syria or the ongoing slump in the economy or whatever else might weigh on our collective minds.

Instead I went to Dog Beach.  We went to Coronado’s dog beach and managed to get through the leashed area without picking up Pumpernickel more than a couple of times.  At the “dog run” area, we hesitated.  To unleash or not to unleash?  Pumpernickel doesn’t know she’s small.  Which one of these other huge, sloping, soaking wet dogs darting to and fro would remind her?

After a short dispute with family members who voted not unleashing, we did, in fact, unleash.  Click, just like that.  Pink harness off too, and small dog in midlife crisis released amongst the dirty masses.

And what came next…well, it felt magical, almost transcendental—at least to me (and apparently, Pumpernickel).  Her ears up, her tail accomplishing new musical beats, she began to run.  She also darted, dipped, jumped, sniffed, begged, circled and gleefully ricocheted across the white sand and into the lapping surf.  First time her paws touched the water she stopped—cold! Do I like this?

Then the symphony of ears, tail, paws, lapping tongue, wiggle of ecstatic recognition—THIS is what it means to be DOG!—continued.  Cautious with the water, she accepted it.  Delighting in her own furry skin, she accepted other dogs.  And they accepted her.  No one got hurt, no one attacked.  The hour—one short hour—transformed her. 

And transformed me. 

 

 




You know your dog. 

You know your dog almost as much as your dog knows you. 

Right?

I mean: if you are angry when you come home from work, Dog watches apprehensively, tail erupting in a speculative wag of joy before—wait for it…!—the next one.  OK to spaz out completely? Doggy’s eyes plead.  Can your lousy work day please tolerate it?

If you are sad, who is the first to notice?  Who shlumps on the sofa, nose down, to sigh and bear your weight for you?  When you are discouraged, so is Dog.  When you are happy, Dog is in a state of bliss.  Dogs are our extensions, our better selves, our cherished icons of acceptance and play and loyalty and love.

My Dog needed something.  Therapy?  Me to quit jobs and stay home more?  More vigorous and frequent walks in the same old neighborhood (yanking on the leash because all Dog wants to do is pee on weeds)?  More growling and barking at the passel of psychotically yipping Chihuahuas penned in the yard across the street?

No.  Oh my, no.  The remedy for a listless, glum looking dog who may be in the midst of a midlife crisis is…dog beach.

Allow me to back up a step.  Our dog is named Pumpernickel (Yes, like the dog in my novel TWICE BEGUN, though I promise that I am NOT Paris Jablonski!).  When my son was small he announced he wanted to own a dog named Pumpernickel.  He didn’t know “Pumpernickel” meant bread.  He only knew what he needed, and Pumpernickel he indeed got.  We kinda do food names at our house.  Cat named Nutty.  Cat named Apples.  Cat named Milky (aka “Malachite”).  Dog named Pumpernickel.

THIS dog…Pumpernickel…is sweet, jealous, social, affectionate and not interested in going alone to the backyard.  She has been a moody little thing lately, miffed about her owners’ daily activities out there in the world without her.

I did not know what to think. I have never had a dog before.  I never did understand the allure of a beach where my ever so jealous dog could run off leash to bark at and, thus unfettered, attack every other dog daring to breathe in my air space. 

I did not see how a disobedient small dog that had once attacked a horse (because I petted it) could become significantly happier by a short, stressful trip to the beach.

I didn’t get it.  Now I do.

Today I could have blogged about something serious or tragic, like the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington.  I could have blogged about the problems in Syria or the ongoing slump in the economy or whatever else might weigh on our collective minds.

Instead I went to Dog Beach.  We went to Coronado’s dog beach and managed to get through the leashed area without picking up Pumpernickel more than a couple of times.  At the “dog run” area, we hesitated.  To unleash or not to unleash?  Pumpernickel doesn’t know she’s small.  Which one of these other huge, sloping, soaking wet dogs darting to and fro would remind her?

After a short dispute with family members who voted not unleashing, we did, in fact, unleash.  Click, just like that.  Pink harness off too, and small dog in midlife crisis released amongst the dirty masses.

And what came next…well, it felt magical, almost transcendental—at least to me (and apparently, Pumpernickel).  Her ears up, her tail accomplishing new musical beats, she began to run.  She also darted, dipped, jumped, sniffed, begged, circled and gleefully ricocheted across the white sand and into the lapping surf.  First time her paws touched the water she stopped—cold! Do I like this?

Then the symphony of ears, tail, paws, lapping tongue, wiggle of ecstatic recognition—THIS is what it means to be DOG!—continued.  Cautious with the water, she accepted it.  Delighting in her own furry skin, she accepted other dogs.  And they accepted her.  No one got hurt, no one attacked.  The hour—one short hour—transformed her. 

And transformed me. 

 

 

 

 Happenstance.  According to my handy online Thesaurus, this word means “a circumstance that is especially due to chance.” 

And, by the way, a catchy rhyme for happenstance is “fighting chance.”  Which, presumably, is happenstance as well…

What about the phrase “leap of faith”?  My handy dictionary defines this as “an act of believing in or attempting something whose existence or outcome cannot be proved.”  Thus, taking a leap of fate—an uncertain step toward freedom, for example—will succeed or not succeed depending on happenstance?

Energy and persistence conquer all things,” said Benjamin Franklin.  Or, consider a Celtic proverb: “Those who wish to sing will always find a song.”  In other words?  Whether a step into the unknown will succeed or not may, in fact, depend on our fervor to step, or our need to step. 

Or: maybe the success of that step is not the only point.  We do it because we must, because we believe, because to not step would be soul-crushing.

Today I’m thinking about a man I met years ago, in his modest home in Forest Hills, New York.  The man’s name was Philip Menchel, and he was from Czechoslovakia.  He was also the father of my college roommate Marcia.  Before this meeting she’d already told me all about him: his years at Auschwitz-Berkenau, his escape from the death march of prisoners toward Germany when the Russian front was approaching, and his subsequent marriage to another camp survivor, Marcia’s mother, Elsa Menchel.  Together this attractive young couple had one child.  They raised her to be warm and honest; and to stay cognizant of history and identity and pain and triumph.   

As for me, well, I had always wanted to speak with a camp survivor; here was my chance.  I was thrilled to meet him, eager to understand what kinds of insights are borne of humanity’s most shameful acts toward humanity.  And my roommate’s father honored me by telling me his story, beginning to end, with all the details that I insisted on knowing. 

To this day, some of those details stay with me as if I’ve absorbed them into my own DNA.  The icy cold reviewing of new prisoners by Dr. Josef Mengel.  The terror of seeing family members walk away forever.  The stench of the ovens.  The savage determination to survive.  I recall Mr. Menchel telling me that his youth and blond hair and blue eyes helped him avoid the worst of the fates distributed all around him.  And I recall his statement of how his own hunger began to destroy the humanity in him—something that bothered him still.  Yet he finds hope, he said.  “I still believe in the good I saw in some people.  That good is what I would call ‘God.’”

Back to leaps of faith and happenstance. 

This man, my college roommate’s father, was among the prisoners who, in 1944, marched 3 days and nights with no water.  30,000-40,000 thousand people died.  So when Mr. Menchel found himself on yet another train, this one heading for Germany, he took a giant leap off that train toward freedom.  He risked death by jumping and running under gunfire, and then hiding in a barn.  So there you have it: the upside of the most dramatic leap of any kind that I can imagine.  With his story in mind, can anyone really despair of the small discouragements arising in a flagging economy; in an uncertain political climate; in the furious mundane battles of aging individuals and families?  Can’t we, too, find the moment to leap? 

Philip Menchel survived to tell his story.  To have his family.  And all these years later—last weekend, in fact—I had the joy of meeting his three granddaughters for the first time when my roommate and her family were visiting California. 

These girls—the gift and legacy of one ordinary and amazing man’s courage--are gorgeous, vibrant, bright, and feisty.  Upon seeing them I thought: these three young women, they exist because of that one leap off a train.  And because of happenstance too, I suppose, since there have always been plenty of brave and worthy people whose courage did not result in what it should have resulted in.

Last weekend the coast was fogged in a bit.  In a seaside villa overlooking a golf course and the shimmering Pacific, I thought about how enduring life can be, and how ephemeral.  These young daughters add to the vibrancy of the world while reminding us that as cruel as this world can be, sometimes one step is all we can do.

And sometimes it is enough.

 

 

 

 

“When I was a girl, we had to walk to school five miles in the snow uphill—both ways!” say I.

Hahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, says my teenage son.  With a twinkle in his eye, he teases me: “In MY day, we had to light fires without matches and hunt our own meat too!”

My turn to laugh.  Ha.

Or cry?

In MY day we DID light fires with matches, but I never hunted my own meat.  In fact, after working for 3 months as a cashier in a butcher shop, I stopped eating meat for a whole year.  So there.

I do get his point, however.  The inexorable “In MY day…” phrase is always on parents’ (and grandparents’) lips.  The Comparison.  When I was a girl I listened to stories of movies for a quarter.  Now my boy has to hear stories of…school buses.

Yes.  Those iconic yellow buses that everybody used to get to ride on just because you lived somewhere and paid taxes. 

Buses went to bus stops that were scattered throughout neighborhoods. 

Buses picked up children at ungodly hours of the morning and drove them to school in time. 

Buses dealt with their traffic so parents could deal with theirs and go to work to pay those taxes to use those school buses. 

What a neat, nifty little arrangement. 

In sun, rain, sleet, snow, light or dark; in hot or cold climes, adults gently pushed us kids out the door and waved goodbye.  Then they, those adults, got busy scraping ice off windshields, or walking dogs, or finding clothes or washing dishes or whatever, which often included schlepping off to work too.

It was, in my current opinion, sheer magic. 

I didn’t have to nag my mother to hurry up or we’d be stuck in school drop-off traffic for an hour and make me get in trouble for being late.  I, the child, did not have to jump out of the car at illegal places to avoid the aforementioned gridlock.  I, the child, did not have to either: 1. Hang out on the lawn or library to kill some time while my mother picked me up, a neighbor friend of my mother picked me up, my grandmother picked me up, or a car pool drove me if we could align school, sports, band, and work schedules; 2. Walk a mile or so to the horse ranch to sit under a scrubby bush and hope that someone could pick me up before I died of heat or had to walk back to school; or 3. Stay at school and work on my homework and hope that I’d get to spend some time at home before coming back for the required 90 hours per week of band practice or open house or whatever.

In MY day, I, the child, got home all by my lonesome.  I could enter the house with a key.  The bus came whether it was crowded or not.  I didn’t love bus rides—does anybody?  But those early mornings-- friends sluggishly gathering on the corner, fog on the breath, new hats or boots or sandals—were one of the signatures of childhood.   If I stayed after school for chorus or theatre (or detention), I took the late bus home. 

Yes, my cynical teenage child, we had late buses to take us home.  Parents did not have the driving-to-and-from-school job (except late in the evening after senior play rehearsals, for example).  One job less for them. 

A logistically less-complicated school life for everyone.  No texting: yes, coming; no, will be late; go to horse ranch; find another ride; etc.

Just buses.  What a system.

I’m not going to discuss taxes to pay for those buses.  Not today.  Because I have to take my son back to school now.  But, truly, I don’t mind too much.  The morning traffic is gone.  My alternative route to school in the a.m. has been discovered, and so there are no more secrets. 

Maybe spacecraft will do the trick?  We could pay for them with…I know…taxes!  

“I’m 29—again!” say so many adults.  Because Birthdays (with a capital B instead of a puny little b) are not really for adults.  Of course not.  Who wants to see the numbers go up and up and up?  Who likes readjusting one’s self-image one step farther from the everlasting twenty year old in Levis and long rich hair and a passel of dreams, ambitions, hopes and enthusiasms galloping through her heart?  Who ENJOYS commemorating one more year toward the decrepitude and loss and the million year sleep?

Um…I do? 

Okay, maybe not the last part.  “But STILL!” to use the brilliant debating words of my Levi-clad twenty year old self.

Birthdays are cool.  Seriously.  No matter how ridiculous and surrealistic the numbers get; no matter if it’s hard to remember the exact age this time around and it seems less important than last year; no matter if so many other adults seem slightly annoyed or embarrassed or depressed or just plain disinterested in another birthday.  I LIKE THEM!  

I like waking up in the morning and thinking, “It’s my birthday!”  I like imagining my mother a long time ago, lovely and young and so pregnant that she could not tolerate waiting around one day longer and attended (with my frantically worried father) an outdoor classical music concert.  The next day she gave birth.  I like imagining that my last sounds in utero were Mozart and Beethoven and Vivaldi.  I like picturing my young parents so excited, my big sister a preschool mama, my old house in Plainview with its tall trees and big yard and my other sister’s collie that pushed me down the stairs later on, when I was five.

Silly, maybe.  Nostalgic, yes, but the fun kind.  All kinds of birthdays merge together in the collage of my August 6th mind.  The big parties with balloons and pointed hats—and my nose bleeding as I wiped it on my clothes.  The parties at Lake Ronkonkoma and Great Adventure—and puking out the window of the car after too many rides on that whirly thing called the Trabant.  The parties of giggling girls sleeping over and the later parties of drinking because I could (though I hated it) and then of being in love and blowing out candles on a Mediterranean beach.  And parties, so many parties, of just family: simple, sweet, nice.  I especially recall checking into the hospital on my birthday because the memo of my September 15 due date for the baby’s birth had not reached Cody, and he wanted to celebrate with me.  He took two days to arrive, of course (he likes to take his time), but still, that birthday was the most special of all.

Birthdays are, even for adults, a day in which we mark our journey.  We see the trees and feel the shade and yearn for the sun.  We smile and feel sad for who is missing, who will only reappear in the collage.  And so, yes, we are wistful too.  We are the sum of all our birthdays and yet none of our birthdays, just like the number matters so greatly and yet does not matter at all.

 Thank you to my family for the lovely lunch at Seaport Village.  Thank you to Facebook friends for your well wishes. 

 t’s my birthday, and I can blog if I want to.  And it feels great.  Now I’m going to go eat some more cake and ice cream!

 

 

 

Stomach flu is nasty.  A nasty experience to have or watch (or smell) and nasty to write about.  And who wants to read about vomiting and diarrhea?  Even the look of the typed letters makes me feel a bit…queasy.  All those harsh consonants: the un-pretty, un-lyrical sound of the words that represent the sounds.  Ugh.

So…why this blog?  When I started to think about the topic of stomach flu I couldn’t make up my mind whether navigating such unpleasant territory--even for the purpose of reaching the “pot” of relief at the end of the rainbow—was worth it.  Not that I ever planned to write about the actual bodily fluids (let us say, ahem, the protagonist in the hospital drama of gastroenteritis?). 

No.  This blog is more about the…well…spiritual experience stomach flu can be (once it’s over, that is).

Let’s put this story in context.  Once upon a time a person is sitting at the dinner table eating with friends and family.  She’s really hungry and eats really fast, though she knows that eating fast is bad for dieting and bad for digestion and bad for dinner parties in general.  Then, about thirty minutes later, pain struck.  Indigestion?  Maybe, at first.  On that famous nurse’s 10 point subjective scale for “ouchies”, maybe we’ve reached 3 out of 10?  

Fast forward a couple of hours.  The party is now over, the guests are gone; Pepto and Tums sprawled on the counter, peppermint tea cooling on the coffee table.  If childbirth pain was a 10+, then this pain has become a… 5.  Survivable, of course.   And we women are tough, right?

Fast forward again.  The pain has become a profound experience of sorts: an intense there-ness that simplifies existence.  Who cares about work, appointments, chores, pets, cleanliness, etc.?  There is nothing left but this horrible intense agony that doubles the woman over.  Can’t sob, can’t breathe, can’t move or walk.  Can’t keep water down.  Can’t stop shaking.  And the fear: Is this food poisoning?  Death by microbe?  A new Plague?  Pancreatitis again? (had that several years ago, and it felt like childbirth in the wrong parts of the body).

Breathe through the pain (ha).  And call Kaiser Nurse for advice.  To ER or not to ER—that is the question!

Let us skip to the pertinent part of this very ordinary story.   After twenty-four hours in the hospital during which time this woman (ME) stopped working, stopped worrying about minutia, stopped paying bills or not paying bills, stopped driving, stopped exercising, stopped writing and reading, stopped being an active adult.  I became a child again, in fact, with my child sleeping in a chair at the side of the hospital bed.  Morphine—wow.  IV fluids to stay alive and no fluids through the mouth for a day (that’s nothing compared to no water for five days with Pancreatitis).  Yucky taste that could only be expunged in a vat of toothpaste.

Then…NO STOMACH PAIN.  Finally. 

Every muscle in my back hurt, of course.  I had to rest for four days to get my equilibrium back, to eat normal meals, to not feel like a victim of a car accident.  Four days of revisiting the experience of being a, well, teenager-like person on summer vacation (sorry, son).  If you’re a parent you know what I mean.  Four days of lying around the sofa and lawn chairs watching other people do STUFF: the caretaking and homemaking and pet-feeding, etc.  No computers or even cell phones (not adolescent-like here).  Just: “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

Not exactly a vacation by anyone’s definition.  But these four days did shift my perspective.  Sharpened my senses.  Honed my insight into what matters, and how small moments conspire to create a rhythm that may not suit.  I felt so very peaceful.  Centered.  Grateful.  Happy.  Wise and childlike.  Practically a freakin’ guru, if you’ll excuse the adolescent-ism.

This blog is about Mindfulness, then.  About revisiting a high number on the pain scale (8? 9? 10?) and a close brush with one’s own physical frailties and limitations.  And then becoming free of it all: frailties, limitations, and everything else.  The baby with the bathwater…

For just four days.  It was enough, though, to carry me the rest of the summer.

Anyone out there know what I mean?

 

This, I admit, has been my dilemma lately.  You see, I am completing my novel SILENT BIRD (which will be available in paperback and e-book by the close of this year).  And these characters have really gotten under my skin.  Pilar and Jeannot, best friend Monique and the mother Alesia…and the troubled and enigmatic father.  The story behind the story, most of all; that is, the love behind the mask; passion and adventure bravely confronting pain.

These invented people are Not-Me’s and Me’s--as all characters are for every writer, at least in my experience.  Novel people are anagrams of family and friends and enemies and strangers observed on the street; shreds of real people and moments in real time, slowly stewed in imagination. 

I started getting to know Pilar Russell and Jeannot Courbois when I was 24 years old.  Over the years since early adulthood, I put this manuscript down, picked it up, put it down, up again and then aired and shared with writers’ groups and contests and conferences and agents and editors, and back down and up and so forth.  The book won one contest, was a finalist in another, and went through enough constructive criticism and sometimes outright rejection to send me skidding back to the drawing board.  A roller coaster for poor Pilar and Jeannot and their love, if you ask them, which no one did.  I simply dangled these two lovers as I dangled and grew and learned and crafted and matured. 

You see, I started this book at a critical juncture in life.  The story idea was born of my brand new social worker self, my culturally confused self (a transplant from New York to California via the South of France?), and my burgeoning adult writer self.  I knew the tale I wished to weave—about intimacy and lack of, sex and disguises of, American identity and the layers therein…But how to tie it all together in one story?

After moving to San Diego from France at age 24, I thought in French, acted like a diluted New Yorker, and lived the lifestyle of a Southern Californian.  I was an ex-journalist, a new social worker, an obsessive scribbler.  I’d been shocked and moved by clients’ struggles, particularly in the area of sexual abuse.  I also felt strongly motivated to write about overcoming struggles in general, including prejudice and culture shock and just plain growing up.

Back to my characters.  I’ve known them a long time (but they barely know me; kinda like a therapist?).  I’m privy to their thoughts and feelings.  I know their unknown selves.  Now, when I am so firmly NOT 24 years old anymore, SILENT BIRD has come to an end. 

It is completed. 

YAHOO, I first thought. 

Then I felt…what?  An echo of loss?  The grief of lives finite but well lived (at least in my head)?  A parent’s agony and pride of releasing something to the universe?

Maybe this fiction stuff makes us writers a little, well, nuts.  Certainly I have had some nutty dreams that actually included my characters.  For example, I once dreamed that someone named Rory called me on the phone.  I picked up the receiver and said Hello and he said Hi, this is Rory and I said I don’t know any Rory and he said Yes, you do, FROM YOUR BOOK—and I screamed ahhhhhhhhhhh!  Kind of like a Stephen King novel. 

Anyway.  I haven’t had any phone calls from Pilar or Jeannot, at least not yet.  Maybe characters don’t call long distance.  Or maybe they are truly at rest now, in fiction terms, because they have told their story.  They’re done, as am I with them.

This blog is a farewell to these folks that have peopled such a big chunk of my life.  I so much look forward to seeing the book cover and releasing it and them and their story to the universe.  I will visit them in my mind but I probably won’t reread the book.

Because if I do, I may end up rewriting the darn thing and spending more years with and for and through Pilar and Jeannot.  Which also means I won’t meet and get better acquainted with new friends, new characters, such as Jess and Charlie and Rikki and whomever.

Go on your way and be well, Silent Bird.  Carpe Diem.

 

 

What is a blog?  A soapbox; an un-syndicated column, a pet project?  Is it a virtual voice in the ether of 21st century life?  An exercise in narcissism?  A public diary?  A—Dare I say it?—platform for one’s artistic machinations in a society where art has so many venues but so little recognition?

I’ve been thinking about this, for whatever it is worth (ahem!).  Why?  Partly because lately I’ve been chatting with so many writer friends about their blog and hearing comments such as: “Yeah, I find it hard to keep going with that” and “I’m behind on my blog” and “There are so many blogs out there…what do I have to say every week?”

When I first heard that term—i.e. “Writers should blog”—I confess I was struck by a mental image of a bog…something dark and sticky; a murky quagmire in the off-the-beaten-track countryside; a place to get stuck.

Well.  Not far off the mark, I sometimes think, especially when I am sitting at my desk trying to devote precious, miserly slots of time to my next novel, which is three-quarters done.  Why get “stuck” in a blog of undefined purpose and pleasure when the real passion of authors—our books—often become the neglected stepchild of this crazy, over-busy work life?  Why not forgo the whole blog thing and just do the real art?

Or is the blog the main form of art, and the book the…well…other art?  After all, how often can one produce a book?  Look how often one can produce a blog…

Not the point, I have decided, leading in fact to this particular blog entry.  Think of the catchy truism from the Southern California Writers Conference: “Write More, Suck Less.”  Is it true, then, that a blog may be the fitness center of a writers’ soul: the place where we flex our muscles, produce the sweat that fans our mental and physical health, and prevent osteoporosis? Let us not forget that working out at the gym is also fun and social (at least allegedly; I’m still waiting for the “fun” part). 

But maybe a blog is none of the things mentioned above.  Maybe I’m overthinking this.  Blogging could be simply a playground for Lovers of Words.  We are Word-Shufflers, after all; folks who love to put Words on a canvas and hang it on a wall.  Maybe the Internet is a Wall, and our blog a filled or partly filled canvas.

I know I am asking questions without answering them.  Sorry.  I have always had more questions than answers.  And on this subject, I’m not sure the answers matter.  A blog is above all personal; it means different things to different people.  It means everything, and nothing. 

A blog may even be a small bid for immortality, for all I know.  Though of course none of us is immortal and all of us count, right?

This morning I was listening to an audiobook of The Mummy Chase, by Elizabeth Peters, when I heard a phrase that resonated for me: two sentences leaping off a theoretical page to wrap themselves around my mind and heart, just like a blog might, could, should do.  “Art cannot exist in a vacuum,” Peabody Emerson wrote in a fictional diary to an imaginary audience that doesn’t even exist in the World of this specific novel.  “Creative spirit must possess an audience.”

Love it.  Thanks Elizabeth Peters!

How fascinatingly complex—and simple—it all is.  A writer writes. 

So be it.

 

Dear Friends, Family, Readers and Writers:

Today I am a guest blogger on the website of a fellow author in the United Kingdom.  Her name is Imogen Knight, and her book is THE REIKI CiRCLE.  Check out my blog and her website and let us know what you think!

Thanks,

Reina

http://www.linkedin.com/redirect?url=http%3A%2F%2Fimogenknightreikicircle%2Eco%2Euk%2Fwriting-career-creating-writing-career-while-keeping-roof-over-head-food-table%2F&urlhash=8Fko&_t=mbox_mebc

Recognize the title, or at least parts of it?  Robert Frost coined the quote above, except in regards to “home,” not books.  Home is the place where, when you have to go there, it has to take you in, Frost said.  And I have always loved this quote, because for me home IS a receptive place.  If my years in social work have taught me anything, it’s that a loving home is the best stroke of good fortune (besides health).  So today, on my father’s 92nd birthday and the beginning of Mother’s Day weekend, I long to celebrate that home even though he’s no longer with us.

I considered a trip to the cemetery to visit Dad’s gravestone but changed my mind and visited my parents’ home instead.  I visited the room where he (still) stores his books.  Inside this modestly sized room, this hidey-hole that he used to gleefully call his “cave,” I find book catalogues, tomes of history, bibliographies galore, and pamphlets on minerals.  I find the pulse of the man because he always had his hands on these particular artifacts of his particular life.  I sit on his faded spot on his comfy couch and remember him in his terrycloth blue bathrobe—and instantly, magnificently, I am home.

Frost was wise, wasn’t he?

Today I celebrate that I was and am always welcome to visit any of my family members, especially my mom.  When I moved from New York to California and attended grad school, I camped out in my parents’ guest room and devoted myself to my studies.  Years later when I got divorced I slept for two years on their living room floor while I saved for a condo.  And now that I have a house fifteen minutes away from the place where my mom lives, she still lights up with delight to have me—even when I am not such a bundle of joy to behold.  Even on those days when I appear on her doorstep with arms full of problems.  “Of course you’re always welcome here,” she says.  “It’s still your home too.”

That being said, today I also celebrate a different kind of home, the world of my own books.  A virtual world, you could say, but not in the traditional way.  Just picture this: in addition to the brick and mortar homes and homes of reminiscence and homes of love and friendship, there is the home of the stories we writers retreat to in our heads.  Okay, maybe it’s a little bonkers, as dear Dad would say.  But…it’s true!  I do have that small place in my own mind, that refuge of infinite proportions, that imaginary world that welcomes me any time I need to go there.

Like today, for instance. I knock gently on the door to one of my ongoing stories—Which one?  What happens next?  How does it look?  Follow the winding path—and then I go inside. Sometimes I hesitate.  Sometimes I don’t know what to say.  Sometimes I’m too restless to enjoy.  Or maybe I’m not helping anybody else by being there.  But always, or nearly always, I feel…settled.  Embraced.  Ready to kick back and indulge in some milk and cookies and watch the circus of personalities all around me.  Home.

Like here right now.  Happy Birthday, Dad.  Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Enjoy Home, everyone…

 

Silly touchy-feely question here, I know.  As someone I respect very much unthinkingly observed: I have been around the block a few times (Hey, does that mean I’M GETTING OLD???).  So I don’t think an overly naïve person, nor am I so much of a bleeding heart that I don’t get angry; nor am I politically neutral on the important issues of the day.  But please, hear me out.

Since the Boston Marathon bombing the BBC has been playing some fascinating interviews with journalists from far more bomb-laden places in this world than anywhere in the USA: countries such as Syria and Iraq.  These journalists--intelligent, articulate in English, reasonable in logic, and contributing respectfully to civil public discourse--dialogued about the perspectives of their fellow countrymen on the recent American tragedy.  

We had seven deaths just today from a roadside bomb, including women and children, one of the speakers said; yet no one makes such a big fuss about them

And said another: We have 50 deaths a day, but everyone is used to that.  Why doesn’t the world make such a big deal about innocent Iraqi deaths as they do about innocent American deaths?

Of course we sympathize with the Boston victims and families, the radio guests hastened to add.  Of course.  But still…

In other words: What about OUR pain?

In my college class on cultural diversity this week my students and I happened to discuss a similar topic (before the Boston bombing).  While contemplating the disturbing human capacity for hatred and genocide we asked ourselves what it means, or doesn’t mean, if one people’s massacres get less press, less public mourning and outrage, fewer museums, or fewer apologies, than another. 

And this university dialogue now reminds me of the radio dialogue following the Boston Marathon.  To me, these individuals seemed to be saying: What about us?  We’re in pain too!  We suffer unexpected tragedy and loss and undeserved hostility—and don’t our innocent civilians deserve better?  Doesn’t anybody out there care as much about us?

The radio talk troubled me.  Maybe because this kind of thinking presents a slippery slope away from empathy in general, as well as in the specific.  In my humble opinion, when we compare wounds we all lose.  After all, no two fingerprints are alike, right?  No two children deserve to be a victim of adult hatred and disturbance.  Most of us around the globe, thank goodness, are in agreement on at least that.  No one’s unbearable pain is a good thing, press coverage or not.

So…a random thought here.  What if we could surf the Net and click not on instructions to build a homemade bomb or buy an illegal gun, but some sort of advanced technology that helps us experience Empathy, in the virtual world if not the real thing?  Maybe we’d wear a patch, or something like an odometer strapped on our arm, or we could plug into the device on our iPods or at the Gym and visit the experience of someone else, somewhere else, pure and simple. 

Then we’d get the harm that we do to others.   This loss feels like this, the gadget would teach us; and this bewilderment like this; and this terror like this.

How awful, right?  So let’s not hate and kill.  Kinda like that old sixties bumper sticker: What if they had a war and nobody came?—except the sticker might say: What if there were bombs out there to be clicked on and bought and built but no one could stomach the experience?

We’d be exhausted from our little Empathy Machine, yes.  Of course.  We’d go mad with compassion fatigue—that burnt out experience of feeling too much for others, period.  Maybe we’d wrap our loved ones in bubble paper and stick them in the closet for safety.  Or maybe we’d be less afraid because we’d know that we are all connected: we are all born, we love, lose, fear, want, yearn, hope…and die.  The human experience in all its real and dubious glory, and pain, is something we share. Maybe, with such a gadget, we would think: let’s never, ever become blasé about horrible injustice or innocent victims.  I for one don’t want to ever de-humanize other people, ethnicities, religions, political ideologies, etc.

Okay, enough fantasizing about a world with a million social workers and no wars (haha?).  But this is my blog, so I’m allowed to “go there” on this gadget of a computer. I am allowed to visit the unrealistic, and today I very much want to.

Lovely thoughts rarely are completely realistic.  I just know that empathetic kids usually make kind, non-violent adults, and empathetic adults often turn out like the heroes we see on TV running toward the injured instead of away.

The best in us instead of the worst of us. 

There may be no empathy machine or gadget, but we do have binoculars—and I think I’ll focus on that one right now because watching TV hurts.

 

Granted, e-books are nifty.  I buy them and even sell them.  And audiobooks are magical, in my humble opinion.  Their stories, mellifluous voices, and discreet sound effects have melted away many a mile for me and mine on long road trips.  But while this major cultural tide does indeed turn and turn and turn—while electronic devices and books sprout like gas stations on a newly paved thoroughfare—there does seem to be something more to say about the subject.

Like secrets.  What about the secrets stashed, folded, scribbled, sequestered, scrawled, scrunched, slapped, and just plain hidden inside the wonderful physical-ness of 3-dimensional books?

Take old books, for example.  These include dignified antiquarian books, yes—the kind my father reverently handled all his long life—but also the merely aging, dog (or fox)-eared, yellowing and outdated, falling-apart-at-the-seams kind of book.

What do they know that we don’t? 

In selling some of my father’s beloved collection, we opened an old book and a letter fell out.  And in lovely educated script, a young man from the early twentieth century told his best friend how much the book meant to him—and gave it as a gift.  Ah, I thought.  A time capsule of imagination within two covers.  How simple!  How deft!

On another ordinary day, a slim volume of poetry offered up its forgotten inscription from the owner—my father, as it turns out—to his bride, my mother, on the very week they were married.  How young and joyful the man sounded!  This love, the book whispered, is now part of my poetry…

Oh, and there are so many more examples of the dimensions inside those 3-dimensional books.

Like: The penciled notes in the margin asking Why?  And Find out more! 

Like: The underlining of misspelled words…so triumphant! 

Sometimes the prize is only a bookmark: Join Our Reading Club!  Or: Donate to Breast Cancer!

There are also shopping lists from old flus (skinless chicken, broth, prewashed baby carrots…) and notes from loved ones (Miss you, Will call tomorrow, Chin up! Don’t forget the feed the animals…).

And let us not forget the small sticky notes detailing the cost of something we’ll never know or have; and pamphlets from an old show, a dance recital, a play.  And business cards, paper clips, even photos: someone solemn, eyes twinkling, carefully posed for the school camera.

These unexpected treasures are mostly worthless, I know (except the antiquarian books, which can be quite valuable).  The past merely bumps elbows with us; we don’t have to linger on it, do we?  Why should we overly ponder the folks who came before and enjoyed this same book, these same words, this same story?

Well, we don’t have to, and maybe we shouldn’t.  After all, if we sentimentally clung to every item, every scrap of paper or discarded morsel of junk, where would we put it all?  Society is going paperless—and the trees are grateful.  Go Green!  I’m all for it.

Plus e-books are cheap, and far superior to schlepping a bunch of 3-dimensional ones onto a plane and losing them somewhere in Tucson.

Yet…Yet.   

Maybe we all have these moments of pure techno-phobia—you know, staring at the multiple remotes on our living room coffee table, hating every last one of them.  At least a number of us (over which age, exactly?) do wax nostalgic about the vanishing world of bookshelves.  I particularly recall the scents of my father’s library, rich in leathery binders, and the thrill of turning those sheets of vellum, first in babyhood and never to stop until we’re old too and done with this earth. 

Who doesn’t crave the weight of a book on one’s lap; the loop of history in such manageable size?  So let’s all hope that e-books never replace the clunky, space-taking, old-fashioned kind.

Maybe they can live together, for generations.  We can learn from them both. 

This is not a political commentary.  No, no, no, no.  Won’t discuss politics on my blog since I cringe at the very idea of overheated rants, and counter-rants, on my website.  Of course I have an opinion, as everyone does, I’m sure…like: Huh? 

“Sequester” means “to hide away” someone or something.  That’s the verb.  The noun means, “a general cut in government spending” according to Dictionary.com.  But my blog is not about official definitions, or official opinions, or even official experiences.  It’s about my tiny corner of my tiny world—a seemingly vast reality to those who people (and animal) it.

The Sequester.  I’ve been watching the news, and reading the news, and trying to wrap my mind around the news, trying to separate politicking and grandstanding and hyperbole-ing from fact.  And I think I’ve got the meaning of this Sequester thing, sort of.  And that meaning goes something like this:

In my house there is a big whopping deficit.  Not trillions, maybe, but a lot more zeros than I can stomach thinking about.  This very big deficit got double-whammied by that “housing bubble” (another term to contemplate) a few years ago, reducing our nice house equity down to minus numbers.  Add to this pile of crapola are a lot of expensive daily items to buy (such as cat litter, say for six or seven or eight dollars; if you make minimum wage, which thank goodness I don’t, it takes an hour to earn enough money to buy sand for your cat to poop on?), and skyrocketing gasoline, and car payments and health insurance, and death by activity-fees-for-the-kid-at-school, etc.—and the debt becomes really truly untenable, even without credit cards.  So let’s stop talking out of both sides of the mouth.  It’s a ridiculous debt.  We need to reduce spending!

Ouch.

What should go first?  The trash?  No, gotta haul away orange rinds and chicken bones, and that costs money.  Could live without Cable, I guess, though I fear to behold the resulting look in my son’s eyes.  We could certainly live without a phone, if it’s used as a phone.  Like most of us, though, I use my cell as work email and camera and, well, an electronic umbilical cord to the teenager, who happens to use his as a sort of transcendental meditation mantra.  No, keep the phones.  I know!  No garden guy twice a month.  Except…well, who has time to trim dead branches in preparation for fire season?  Anyway, that amount of money won’t make a big enough difference.  And the car is not on the chopping block.  Period.  Nor is air-conditioning, not in East San Diego.  Last time we lived here without air conditioning, it was 114 degrees at 9 pm; even my cats were emo over that.   

Computers and laptops are a must; a person can’t even grade papers or do homework without technology.  Sprinklers have already been cut, for the most part.  Many of our plants are drought-friendly—a good thing.  But showers still require water, as do baths.  And some plants, drought-friendly as they try to be, really hate me when I don’t water them.

Maybe food is the best place to start.  You know, cut coupons, answer annoying customer surveys online for raffles, join food clubs, buy from the list of reduced items.  Or buy at Bargain Grocery, which of course means living without the only kind of coffee creamer that gets me up and functioning in the morning.  Better yet, shop at the Dollar Store to buy really cheap toilet paper (ignore the son’s comments on that too), et cetera.  It would probably be more practical to shop at Dollar Store first, then Bargain Grocery, and then one of those expensive fun places that have really yummy cheeses at one glob of cheese an hour for those minimum wage peons.

I’m getting the feeling that cutting expenditures is a logistical nightmare and generally impractical and unattractive and may ruin the morale around here (not to mention how cranky my animals get when I buy cheap food for them).  So, forget expenditures. 

By “forget,” I mean cut down, but not draconian cuts.  Let’s be real here.  Can’t say to the kid, “No Zoo membership for you this year!”  And what happens when the unexpected occurs: that random, all-too-frequent plumbing fiasco, or vet bill, or weird County Trim-Your-Tree-Off-The-Road-Or-We-Will-Do-It-For-You notice that appears once in a while on the driveway?

I would much rather turn the high beams on revenues.  (I won’t mention that dirty word: Taxes.  Not going there.  Not yet.  Damn, I wish we owned a race horse.)

Back to Revenues.  Shall I get another job?  Already have two and a half, plus motherhood, plus book writing and cat box changer and dog walker and dishwasher, etc. 

How about a different kind of job?  Except I like what I do, and where I work, and I did not become a neurosurgeon after all.  Or a lawyer.  Or an engineer. ..

Maybe I can cut loopholes somewhere so that overall revenues increase without my working more, or getting luckier…??? 

What’s that you say? 

Oh.

Well, no one can agree on stuff anyway, not at MY house.  Everyone has an opinion , and we all talk at the same time, and when we get really frustrated we blame the other guy and then just leave the room.

Then deadlines hit and chaos ensues. 

Bills don’t get paid so collection agencies make arbitrary cuts into my lifestyle.  The IRS gets crabby and starts picking at my paychecks.  The doctors forget their bedside manner (if they had one) and start making prank calls to stimulate spontaneous urges to pay.  In other words, cuts happen anyway, just not ones I really chose, and maybe really stupid ones.  But no one cares because I’m a grown up and this is life and in life Shit Happens.

I mean: Sequester Happens.

 

 

Letter to My Sick Cat, Linky:

It’s Sunday evening, and I am staring at you.  This morning I was staring at you.  And yesterday, and parts of Friday and in the middle of the night on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  I stare at you to see if you are enjoying your life, if you are going to throw up, if you might need water or care for a nibble of fine and stinky soft cat food.  I stare at you to memorize the tufts of your Linx-like ears, your white bib and white feet, your soft dark tabby coat which now covers such an improbable frame—you used to be so fat! 

I stare at you so I may hear you if you tell me it’s time, that sleeping in the sun no longer pleases you; that you are done with lap sitting and bed hogging.  Are you too tired to go on?  You’ve always been tired; you are, after all, a cat.  So be it.  But you are eating again, and drinking water.  And you purr now and again: a burst of approval when I least expect it or exactly when I do expect it.

How we love your purr.

I am exhausted.  I’ve got the vet’s number posted on the fridge; all I need to do is call him, and he will ride in on his merciful stallion and gently guide you away from me, from us, to that pile of blankets in the sky…

I don’t want to call the vet.  Ever.  I don’t want to decide whether you live another day, purr another nanosecond, climb up onto the couch and knead kitty biscuits into the blanket with your gloved paws one more hour.

To euthanize or not to euthanize?  I get it intellectually, of course.  A beautiful, feisty creature like you, toward the end of life, may be in terrible pain.  So time to go.  Et cetera.

Right?

I’m sorry, Linky, if my decisions are wrong or slow in coming, or non-existent.  You see, I don’t have an opinion on this subject in general.  I only have an opinion specifically, for today, this hour, this creature, this pet-owner.  For you, the lanky skinny rescue cat with the operatic voice, now a bread loaf on the bed for most of the day…well, what’s your opinion?

Why can’t you speak English?

I am not good at deciding when to stop helping a creature stay alive.

Or a person, if truth be told.

Thank goodness we don’t call a doctor to administer an overdose of barbiturates to people when they’re old and sick and really, really expensive.  We just take care of them or put our loved ones in a facility to receive care, and then we battle with ourselves, doctors, nurses, advisors, and sometimes the loved one too, to decide when Enough Is Enough.  We have Ethics committees, palliative nurses, hospice counselors, and all kinds of articles on what is and is not a quality life.

But we don’t know, not really.

With my father we just couldn’t do it.  My family couldn’t do it.  Just one day, one hour, with him in the ICU, had weight.  We were awed by the flicker of life and intelligence and humor, even when it appeared only in a quirked eyebrow, a signal of squeezed hands, a look of love—a burst of purr, I guess you could say.

My father, I believe, understood.  He was a wise man who knew how little we humans know; how complex life can be.  Some questions don’t have answers.  Some questions have answers but we can’t speak them.  Some answers are answering the wrong question.

I was ready to call it a lifetime for you, Linky, on Thursday afternoon.  Thursday evening you ate and drank and purred, and I put the decision on hold.  Friday you nibbled and drank again, and I dared to hope for two more days.  Saturday I dared to hope that you were making a comeback.  Today I am watching you again, waiting for a sign of decline or improvement, hoping that we can just forget all this life-and-death stuff and go back to hanging out together, like always.

You can’t last much longer, I know.  Your step-sister Cali died a few years ago.  You are getting so long in the tooth you can’t seem to clean your own fur properly.  You are still feisty but not so crabby as you used to be.  I lift you in my arms and you allow it.  You sleep against my side as if memorizing me too.

I don’t know if I will call the vet or not, or when, or anything else, much less how I can pay for what all vets charge.

All I know is that love comes in all forms and in this case that form is you: bright green eyes, swishing tail, hanging flab, pointy ears, whiny complaining meow…and a huge chunk of my life within your 17 years.

Animals are members of the family, and you are a matriarch here in our feline world.  A grand dame, Linky.  We love you, now and forever—even when you are a pain in the neck.

Xxoo

Reina

 

 

 


 

OK, cybercrime.  I get it.  A person with no ethics and no money happens to own a computer or have use of one, and so this person sits down and figures out ways to get into strangers’ email accounts. 

Must have some intelligence, right?  Some ability?  Yes.  The person must be bored, or broke, or mean, or all three.  He or she needs a hobby, like crocheting or playing piano or spewing graffiti art all over the refrigerator door.  But, no.  That won’t bring in cash.  That’s too easy, too “square,” too normal.

Well, I’d like to say that these efforts at getting money are too obvious, too trite, and too obnoxious for even the hacker’s own good.

I mean, think about it: This bright person, this hacker-in-the-making, sticks his fat virtual nose into those email accounts, sucks up all the victim’s contacts and email addresses and then writes everyone with a sob story about getting mugged, etc.—so please send money. 

Huh.  The first time I receive a request like this, I admit I got worried.  I tried to figure out why my professional colleague suddenly couldn’t spell and had awkward syntax in English.  I tried to figure out why she would call me instead of her mother or cousin or husband or child.  I tried to figure out if I should help.  I phoned the friend and discovered the “I’ve been mugged, send money” scam.  I hoped it wouldn’t happen to me, not that most of my friends have any money to wire me anyway.

Today I got initiated.  My emails and contacts went “poof,” my account got jammed, and dozens of friends, acquaintances and colleagues called and wrote to check if I was OK, if I needed money, if I had suddenly escaped to the Philippines.  I spent two hours figuring out what to do and messing with email accounts and passwords and customer service reps.  I learned that people I hardly know care about if I am mugged on the other side of the world.  And I felt contempt for those hackers for their lousy punctuation and spelling skills.  Ha!  Think you can fake that you’re me?  I wouldn’t make such a stupid typo!  So take THAT! 

What am I trying to say?  Yes, I am venting.  Yes, I am denouncing the joy of a whole new type of crime (our house was robbed several years ago and that was traumatic; this was less so in many ways but creepier in another: this crime is international, I don’t really get how it’s done—and can’t picture a computer virus; does it have antennae?)  The sociologist in me is wondering what kinds of cybercrime will pop up to annoy us ten or twenty or thirty years from now.  The social worker in me wants to tell the hacker that with these tech skills, he or she could really, really, find a legit way to make money.  Oh, and the writer in me?  The writer in me wants to throw a dictionary at him.

If you need a thrill, Sir / Madam Hacker, why not try bungee jumping?  Or even gambling; you might make money that way. 

In any case, take a grammar class to improve your pleas for funds.  

I know you won’t do that, though.  That would require foresight, maturity, humility, and courage.  None of which you need to slink behind the cyber-curtain, stealing people’s names and addresses and hopefully their bank accounts.

Wow, I DO feel better.  Thanks for listening.  The wonders of the cyber world, huh?  LONG LIVE THE BLOG!

J


I confess: The theories, history, tricks and nooks and crannies of psychology and therapy fascinate me.

I confess: Writing stories feeds me.  Always has.  It’s that simple.

Question: Are the two passions related?

I believe so.

This weekend I will be teaching a workshop at the Southern California Writers Conference.  The name of the workshop, offered Sunday morning, is “Character Therapy—and You’re the Shrink!”  I was sitting at home this evening noodling the details of this workshop, and that led me down the path of reminiscence, which had me running for my pen…well, computer.  To my blog.

Full circle.

I first became interested in psychology in high school, when so many of my friends were going down the path-to-nowhere of drugs and alcohol.  I recall one kid in particular.  He had wild red hair, an appealing round face full of freckles, and a soft voice…and yet by eleventh grade he looked old, almost withered, a peripheral character in his own story.

Why would such a nice kid shoot himself up with heroin, I wondered.  More importantly: what might make him come back?

My interest in psychology solidified when our high school guidance counselor aimed bleary, cynical eyes in my direction and said, “Forget it, Menasche.  It’s too late for you to turn your grades around and go to college.  You’ll never get into Stony Brook.”

Why would an adult give up on a sixteen year old? 

Why don’t any of us know exactly who will rebound, who will break, who will learn, who will fly?  How do we, as human beings, DECIDE to rebound or fly?  When is pain too much pain, when is grief immobilizing, when do we transcend our egos to find meaning?

How do we not only listen to people’s stories, but hear them too?

As a writer, I always wonder when the protagonist of my story will change, if she changes…and how that change might unfold, bit by bit--so subtly, so nuanced that I, too, believe in, as Stephen King says, “the truth within the lie.”

Yes, I studied psychology as a kid but I began studying books—novels, that is—even earlier.  So, for me, the two have always intermingled.  The art of mind defines the art of art, and vise-versa.  If that makes sense.

If it doesn’t, that’s OK too, at least until my workshop.  For any writers at the SCWC who decide to drop by, please bring a fictional character you would like to work on.  Be ready to peer under that character’s skin at his / her natural resilience.  Let’s examine the characters’ thoughts, potential, pain and conflicts, dis-ease, and hope. 

Let’s always celebrate strengths, real or otherwise.

On Sunday we’ll do some therapy on our protagonist, knowing that everyone benefits from the effort.  I’m looking forward to an enjoyable workshop and especially to seeing old friends.

Oh, and I DID get into Stony Brook, no thanks to that high school counselor.  He just got me all wrong.  He didn’t do his homework…

 

 

 

 

Does this scene sound at all familiar to you? 

My pretty yellow bedroom, in my family’s ranch house on Long Island, with its poster of teenage wisdom boldly on display: “Happiness is like a butterfly.  The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.  But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder”—by L. Richard Lessor.

Yes, the poster was trite.  Of course.  At fourteen, I felt oddly comforted by simple truisms.  After all, which one of us can decide to feel happy, sit down for a nice long while and just bask in it unfettered?  Oh sure, there are days like that, if we are lucky.  Joy DOES flit, does it not?  I think of those moments as the bits that make up life’s collage: a random smile here, warm eyes there, a small flower, a vast blue sky, a thrill at a movie, a wagging doggy tail, a hug, a kiss on my hair, the flight of passion…

Mixed into the collage are the big joys, too: the full days, weeks, maybe months, occasionally years, of life’s glittering and soothing kaleidoscope.  The miracle of love.  The exuberance of health.  A fragrant Sunday dinner at home.  And so on.

The butterfly poster was warning me of something else, though.  As part of an eccentric but healthy, intact and loving family, I was one of the lucky ones; a child who gets to be a child when it’s time to do that.  A child whose biggest concern is which sister she likes best and how to be popular at school and get fairly good grades.  But the poster—that lovely, elusive, mysterious butterfly—whispered larger, more hidden truisms for any kid also fortunate enough to grow older and experience the world.  LOSS, TOO, DOES COME, AND GO.  IT WILL NOT STAY STILL.

Fast forward a few decades and states and losses away, and I’m a social worker and teacher listening to a speaker from Hospice explain the stages of grief.  “Grief is unpredictable,” the speaker said.  “The stages of grief are not linear.  They don’t look the same for different people.  They don’t have an expiration date.  They don’t come when you expect them to.  They don’t FEEL normal.  You may feel like you’re ‘going crazy.’ But grief is normal and very individualized.”

Mmm.   So grief flits and flies and lands and escapes? 

Yes.  Although, to tell the truth, this month—on the first anniversary of my father’s death—the pain and emptiness and sadness feel more like kamikaze planes flying at me and my family than a lovely butterfly.

Still, I think the metaphor holds.  The adult me finds comforting wisdom in these simple observations.  I am fine.  I am working.  I accept life on its terms.  I’m grateful for the blessings I’ve got.  And then I’m not…fine…working…accepting…grateful.  I’m crying—why in the car, driving on the freeway?  Why in the shower?  (And why does shower-crying seem to be cyclical?)  Why the revisiting of grief now, and not now, on my parents’ 67the wedding anniversary?  How can I lean back in my chair and laugh at silly mealtime banter?  Laugh so hard at the cat playing “fetch” with his green ribbon when my heart has a serious hole in it? 

How can I not?  My father, of all people, understood laughter, whether nervous, strained or real.  He lived for many years (though never, never long enough to us!) and possessed the wisdom to understand my butterfly poster better than I ever could.  My father, a World War II veteran and scholar, also told me about kamikaze pilots. 

The metaphor is mine, though, not his.  In this one very painful year I have learned that Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance (to keep it simple)--elude me if I chase them, if I try to pin them down.  But when I’m not looking, grief in one of its incarnations alights upon me and tattoos its whispery mark upon my skin.

The Hospice speaker was right.  And so I don’t judge my own grief or anyone else’s.  This is part of our humanity.  Emotions are not a solid thing to put in a box or on a shelf or in the ground or on our sleeve.  They change and shift and surprise and fill and empty. 

Like sand moving and shifting and blowing across ever-changing dunes.  Another metaphor.  I’m chock full of them today, a day when my son has the flu.

Because his fever went down this morning—and that wondrous butterfly of joy alighted upon me.  Yay!

I’m grateful.  

Last week I blogged on my negative feelings toward violent video games, including zombie-killing sport; and my positive feelings about how much my very ethical son seems to enjoy these games. 

I concluded with the assertion that, in the interest of fairness, open-mindedness, and pleasing my child, I would indeed give zombie murder a whirl.  After all, as he tells me, “Zombies ARE already dead.”

So there you go.  And there I went.

Now, to report:

First I’d like to share the good things—and there were good things. 

My son was visibly excited to have his bah-humbug-ing mother next to him on the couch to “zom.”  He patiently, slowly, and repeatedly explained the nuts and bolts of zom-dom: how to hold the remote thingie, how to work the joystick, which buttons to press for this and that (things like jumping and firing and knifing, and I can’t recall the rest; actually I forgot the second he told me).  

He laughed with affection when I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at.  What kind of zombie apocalypse is this? I asked.  Everything is kind of gray and brown and muddy and hard to see!  Isn’t there a brighter screen?

No, he said.  The zombie apocalypse does NOT come in bright flowery colors.

I accepted the ugly scenery and tried to locate the zombies, as instructed.  But where were they?

That’s not a zombie, my son said.  You’re shooting at me.  Do I look like a zombie?

I wisely took the Fifth (I mean: How many days has he worn that shirt???). 

But seriously, the zombies were NOT easy to see.  To my surprise those un-dead creatures lurched out of nowhere and then spun off again before I could shoot them.  Or they shot at me in a splotch of red, meaning that the zombie did the dirty deed first.  

Oh.  Ouch. 

But why? I asked. 

Because you’re doing a bad job, my son said, ever so tactfully.  You have to look ahead of you!  You have to turn your head in the same direction you’re shooting!  You have to stay walking on the sidewalk, not lying down spinning and staring at the sky!  There are no zombies up there!

All right, geez.  Calm down.  Let’s not get dramatic.

Like the overly harassed teacher he was, he limited me to just a couple of buttons for orienting myself and shooting; forget the calisthenics. 

And then…and then…I actually shot a zombie! 

A few zombies, in fact.  Though mostly what I did was simply spy one staggering along before I spazed out in all directions and ended up with a killer case of vertigo.

My son said I broke records for poor marksmanship.  He also said he’d never seen such spastic zombie-killing before.  Nor had he ever known a grownup so easily amused and entertained—not by the zombies or the game, as it turns out, but by the utter lunacy of trying to clutch, jerk, and punch some life into the screen through that stupid contraption he made me hold.

In other words?  I’m bad at the violent video game thing anyway, so why fret over it? 

My son understands, I think.  He enjoyed the giggle-fest—and then he downloaded a modern version of that Stone-Age video game, PacMan.

I like PacMan.  I don’t mind eating dots. 

OK, I did have to be shown what to press in order to move around, and even reminded which creature was supposed to do the eating.  Truth be told, I got over-excited again when it was ghost-eating season.  So yes, yes, there was some uncoordinated ricocheting up and down aisles trying to catch those ghosts.

Sigh.  I’m even challenged at PacMan.

One other good thing to report, though.  Both my son and I had a whale of a time laughing at the untalented Mommy.  We had fun.  

And the most surprising conclusion? 

Well, the “killing zombies” part bothered me THE LEAST.  When I actually succeeded, which was rare, I was pretty darn thrilled with myself.  I didn’t care.  I was heartless.

What kind of social worker am I?

 

 

 

 

“How do you feel about zombies?” my son, age 14, often asks me.

What can I say? 

I hate zombies.  Sorry.  They’re ugly and flesh-eating and drooling blood and spilling guts and shlumping along with rotting faces, and…well, violence doesn’t really rock my boat.

“But zombies are already dead,” he states matter-of-factly.  “I won’t ask you to play ‘Black Ops.’”

Heaven forbid.  A game where my wonderfully kind and funny and ethical musician-scientist-writer son takes virtual aim to kill PEOPLE?  (Even if those people are trying to kill you, which makes it self-defense, my son insists.)

My inner girly-girl cringes.  My inner Mommy howls.  When I was his age, I liked boys already—quite a bit actually, especially if the boy happened to be attached to my older sister—but I did consider their romping and grossness more than a little uncouth.  Having grown up in a peace-loving, rather intellectual family of one male (my poor outnumbered father) and four females (including myself), I did not play army or cowboys and Indians, and I hoped the boys I knew would outgrow their bang-bang obsessions.  I did not find sport in pretend killing.  I didn’t even like Stephen King novels until much later (I LOVED his last novel on time travel!).

Then, years later I had a child, one child: a boy, not a girl.  And I had that child with a horror writer, of all people.  Go figure.

No yellow canopy bed, yellow carpet, yellow walls for my baby.  Enter mean critters for decoration and entertainment, starting with dinosaurs and then monsters and ghosts and vampires, and now with zombies.  Wait, I got the order wrong.  When my son, age 5, was up all night with the stomach flu, we had to watch “Scoobie Doo and the Zombies” to keep him calm (and me sane).  Seven times, we watched it.  Even then the creepiness seemed to bring him solace and even joy.  The cartoon just made me feel yucky, not too different than what it feels like to clean up puke.

Not that I didn’t try to keep my parent-child interactions stereotype-free.  I swear I tried.  When he was just a young toddler we participated in a “Mommy and Me” class in which I handed him a beautiful, soft-to-cuddle doll.  And my sweet, very affectionate and emotional little boy looked interestedly at the doll, dropped it onto the classroom floor, and ran it over with his truck.

Then he smiled.  “Again!” he said, and dove for the doll.

I teach psychology, so I’ve done my research on this stuff.  And I know, for example, that modeling aggression in children can influence them; of course it can.  But even the research tells me that a non-violent person—a child raised with love and attention, a child with good social skills and empathy skills and without aggressive tendencies—will NOT become aggressive just from playing video games.  I know this.  I know that video games can provide an overly civilized life with some edgy action and (safe) danger.  I know that games provide a channel for a kid’s aggressive impulses. 

As a school counselor, I also know that kids who are never allowed to play with toy weapons often make their pretend weapons out of sticks or crayons or whatever is handy.

Video games, in a kid who has friends, is nice, and gets good grades, is not a problem.

Still.  Zombies?  Please.

“But you never tried my game, not even once,” my son claims.  “How can you be sure you don’t like it?”

Um.  Is this the same argument I’ve given about his trying a new kind of vegetable?  About trying a movie that does not have “beheadings” in it?  About trying a new type of music, or listening to a viewpoint that he’s never heard before.

Not the same, my mind insists.  I mean: It’s disgusting!

“That’s why it’s fun to kill them,” my son says.

And he’s got a point, in his world anyway.

Which is now my world too.  It’s in my living room.  I ration it like you’d ration Halloween candy.  I keep one eye on the content and both eyes firmly closed.

“Will you try it?” he asked just today.  “If you want to stop, we’ll stop.  What do you say?”

What do I say?  What do I say?

What else?

“Bring ‘em on,” I’m going to tell him. 

I’m already working out for the experience…


 

Sometimes—and sometimes more than sometimes—a paid job can give you benefits that don’t come in dollars and cents, but in sense and empowerment. 

In my day job at Volunteers of America Southwest, this lovely un-contracted benefit first came in the physical form of our agency chaplain, Rev Ev, who shared with me an all-inclusive model of spirituality, as well as a Wholistic Model to use in our work with clients.  Ev is a good friend of mine and a wonder of kindness who brings special meaning to all of his definitions.  And so when I pondered the close of 2012 and the launch of 2013, I thought of how I might apply my own fingerprint in actually using them.

My agency defines spirituality as “one’s personal search for meaning and fulfillment that is achieved through one’s relationship with self, others, and the universe.”  When I first heard this, I sighed with satisfaction: Ah.  Something no one need argue about, kill over, hate under, or otherwise mis-use.  Great.

 But how could I use this to shape a New Year’s Resolution that feels, well, different?  I mean: that feels like more than a mere list of feelings and stuff and experiences that I hope to encounter in the New Year?  Those lists are fine, they’re useful I guess, but they rarely change me too much whether or not I get to check some of the items off the dang list.

 Truth is: I mostly lose the list.  I’m not too good with paper. 

 And I mostly forget my vows and try to fix old problems in the old ways.  I’m not so hot with behaviors that don’t come naturally to me. 

 And I can get discouraged when something bad or unforeseen or scary or sad happens.  I get overwhelmed and a little crabby at any reminders of old lists.

 All of the above is normal, I think (I hope).  New Year’s Resolutions are the loftier expression of…well, our spirituality, as defined above.  New Year’s Resolutions are our personal search for meaning and fulfillment in list form.  Items on the list, no matter whose list it is, usually concern one’s relationship with self, others, and the universe, right?  Um, what else is there?

 So, onward to Resolutions. 

This morning I was struck with a thought.  What if I actually enlarged and printed out the Wholistic Model?  And what if I posted it somewhere I could easily see it, somewhere that could impact the most uneventful of my mornings, noons, and nights? 

 AND, most importantly, what if I resolved to take ONE ACTION STEP EACH DAY IN EACH QUADRANT OF THE WHOLISTIC MODEL?

 If I continue to tap into Rev Ev’s model, there could be dozens of large and small and infinitesimal action steps to choose from.  For example, “One’s relationship with self” includes choices related to self-esteem, introspection, ambition, and meaningful purpose.  I could choose, on any particular day, to participate in an activity I am good at.  Or I could choose, on another day, to think about my life.  Simple stuff—but powerful too?

 “One’s relationship with others” includes purpose, acceptance, disclosure, and meaningful purpose.  I could choose, on any particular day, to disclose to someone I care about something that I have kept hidden.  Or I could choose, on another particular day, to accept someone exactly as he is, even if I don’t agree that person’s choices.

 

“One’s relationship with the universe” includes commitment, worship, revelation, and meaningful purpose.  I could choose, on any particular day, to commit myself to an arc of purpose during my time on this earth.  I could, on any other particular day, wonder at the tree in front of me.  For, according to Rev Ev—and I very much agree with him--simple wonder at the world is a spiritual activity.  Perhaps this is why absorbing and wondering at the beat of life also lies at the core of mindfulness (which helps so many people suffering from grief or trauma, etc.).

 Right now, through this blog entry, I have disclosed my intention, I have defined a purpose in the new year, and I have accepted and connected to Rev Ev as well as any readers.  I have participated in the evolution of the Wholistic Model, or engaged in a spiritual activity, and I would love to hear from you too, and hear about your resolutions!

 One item checked off my list…

 

 

 

What if we created a culture that aimed high: toward mental health, toward safety? 

What if we, united as Americans, worked harder than ever before to create a culture that looked at our troubled young people (and men in particular) as well as the evidence about when most of that trouble begins?  What if we acknowledged the answer to this question, also reflected in the age-old truism that “An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure”—and then structured our economic system to target schools as the focus of mental health services?

After twenty years of social work, I am not naïve enough to think that there is “one panacea” (as one congressman said on the news today) to our gun violence problem. I’m not even addressing the assault weapon issue in this blog…not yet, anyway.

Today I am referring to the fact that the young adults who were also disturbed as children; the young adults who also are at the age that is likely to see the onset of mental illness IF mental illness is going to occur; the young adults who as children set off alarm bells in teachers, parents, or the community—these kids should receive mental health services and they should receive them early, IF WE WANT A HEALTHY AND SAFE CIVILIZATION TO LIVE IN. 

Mental health services are no magic panacea either, of course.  Nor are schools the do-all, be-all place for solutions to life.  But let’s face it, schools are normalizing.  Folks who dread therapists will permit their kids to be assessed at school.  Kids who don’t know about mental health services, or don’t care, or don’t like the attention, or whose families can’t afford services, will still be assessed, and perhaps reached through trained staff.

Back to my question.

I do know that providing such services for free in our school systems costs money, a lot of it.  However, in NOT doing it, this price just goes up and up and up—human, financial, and otherwise.  There is no price worth saving our children, in my opinion.    

So: What if our elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools conducted respected risk assessments?  What if the odd or unhappy or remote or abused or bullied or aggressive child received help right away?  What if school social workers or counselors or psychologists had a small caseload, like ten or twenty children, to follow?  What if, in the often-turbulent years of adolescence, high schools provided a mentor for each kid—and maybe even a “big brother” on campus, which would provide a positive learning experience for the big brother as well?

Expensive.  Yikes, I can already see the dollar signs and hear the roar of protest. 

Still.   We CAN reach more disturbed kids than we currently do. 

Can we reach all of them?  No, I don’t think perfection is possible.  BUT ISN’T ONE CHILD’S LIFE WORTH THE EFFORT OF TRYING?

In San Diego I was hired as a school social worker in the blitz of such jobs after the El Cajon High School shooting in 2001.  Five years later, after all the brouhaha settled down and budgets got cut (for more social workers / counselors than administrators, I couldn’t help but notice), four of five of our school social workers were laid off.  Not needed?  No.  Not paid for.  Not valued, though those social workers were very much valued by the individual principals and teachers—and parents.

I have a different job now, one I enjoy very much, one in which I see the addict / parolee adults who were once children who slipped through the cracks, as we commonly say.  So I am not writing any of this to increase employment opportunities. 

Once more, the question: What if we decided to reprioritize our moneys and prevent school / theatre / mall, etc. shootings by finding and serving those disturbed kids early, as much as humanly possible?

Just askin’…

The story of Devra Gregory—the fabulous actress billed at San Diego’s Lyceum Theatre as “a professional dancer and Michael Jackson impersonator [who] takes you on a wild ride through her life in this one woman show from ballet, to exotic dancer to ‘Michael’”—resonated for me, enough so that I wished to blog about it.

Why? 

I am an actress but would run screaming from doing a one-woman show (I think).  Just mastering a four-page monologue last summer exhausted me and strained my brain. 

I am a dancer of dance recitals and the odd bit in a play. 

I can’t impersonate anyone.  That is, other than my son playing video games or maybe my father making fun of me, or somebody French asking for McDonald’s. 

In other words, though my life is interesting enough TO ME, it’s, well, definitely ho-hum next to Devra’s.  I can’t relate to a lot of what she portrayed.  Yet her show has stayed with me since viewing it last Sunday. 

Having grown up on Long Island, I cut my teeth on Broadway and off-Broadway and offoffoff, way-the-hell-off Broadway shows: everything from nose-bleed seats for Chorus Line to Bob Fosse jazz to some weirdo bit with mostly naked people wearing bluish paint.  Generally I prefer comedies or musicals, or musical comedies.  I love interaction, clever one-liners, depth and irony and whimsy in one rich chorus of characters.  Somehow I got that from this one woman alone on a stage. 

But that’s not the only reason I can’t forget the show. 

Devra, who also happens to be a friend of my sister Irene’s, took the audience with her to a child playing in a grassy yard; to a girl traumatized by violence in the home; to a teen seeking definition and satisfaction; to a woman needing to make a living, needing to dance, needing to capture her niche.  She led us into the (point?) shoes of a dancer: ballet, jazz, burlesque, exotic…and MJ. 

Dancers, visual artists, writers, singers, musicians, actors...Good Lord, where do all these people come from?  Sometimes so many artists pedaling their craft seem as common as cockroaches—and as hardy.  In my experience, almost all these Lovers of Art labor devotedly, sometimes slavishly, over a craft that does not pay much, does not easily find a home; often does not seem to have value if not consumed by an indifferent or distracted public. 

So…what about this show?  Devra is one of the most versatile dancers I’ve ever witnessed.  When she plays Michael Jackson, not only her body but her face morph unflinchingly. I loved her Michael.  Yet even this amazing impersonation did not strike me as much as her rendition of Artist.  It is a cliché, perhaps, the Artist’s Journey.  I mean: Who has new words for artists’ angst, artists’ poverty, artists’ desperation to simply create a tree even if it might stand alone in the forest without anyone to see it?

Devra does.  By herself, on a stage, she made the cliché original.  Isn’t that what art is always about?

Oh…and show was a wild, very fun ride.   Thanks for the tree, Devra!

 

 

 

One of my former roommates had her house smashed by Sandy. 

Other roommates were without power for a week while I sat in toasty San Diego, staring at frightening images on TV. 

All of my old friends back east were impacted greatly by that awful storm, prompting my dear friend Marcia to post on FB an article from the NY Times.  This article asked an insightful question of its readers:  What would YOU bring if you were standing in two feet of water in your own home and wanted to save something before evacuating?

I call this question “insightful” because it is disturbing; its answer may very well imprint itself onto a person’s psyche—at least it did in my case.  Because although I don’t know what it’s like to stand in two feet of water or to see my home smashed to bits, I do know what it’s like to feel fear and to evacuate in the dead of night.  I know what it’s like to ask myself what to bring—and to be startled at the response.

On October 17, 1989 I was in San Francisco when a 7.1 earthquake hit.  Ironically I’d actually been laying stomach-down on a grassy field in Golden Gate Park, with my hands on the earth, when I felt a deep rumble.  The rumble turned into a serpent undulating under the grass; then trees wagging; then sirens and car crashes and broken bridges and crowds rioting stores for emergency supplies and, of course, no power for a while (though no freezing weather either).   For that earthquake, though, I was not home.  I didn’t evacuate.  I returned home to a smashed TV and hundreds of aftershocks that my family and me scurrying to doorways and under tables for the next several months.  The bad dreams continued for a year.  But no evacuation: no possessions that needed to be weighed and judged as worthy enough to escape with.

In the wildfires of 2007 I came just a tiny bit closer to what this year’s flood victims may have felt like.  In our case, who was the perpetrator of widespread evacuations?  Not Sandy, of course.  Instead we had “Santa Ana winds,” which Raymond Chandler in his book RED WIND called: "those hot dry [winds] that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen." 

To put it more factually, according to Associated Press, the 2007 Santa Ana winds resulted in San Diego suffering through five fires converging on approximately 655 homes, 168 businesses, and 374 square miles.

Not as colossal and horrific as Sandy, if one can compare calamities (which one never can; even one loss is too many for that family!)  My point is, at 2:00 in the morning one of the treacherous fingers of this dragon-fire began unfurling down Mount Miguel toward my street.  At 2:00 in the morning the much-dreaded call came to evacuate.  Meanwhile, the air smelled like the inside of Hell.  Ashes floating down on the heads of neighbors packing up their cars added to my little boy’s hysteria—and mine.   Our dog was a quivering mess.  Lights were ablaze up and down the street as folks stood in bathrobes staring at the sky and talking.  Apocalypse under Palm Trees.  “Time to go,” I told Cody.  “You just sit here with your blanket while I grab a few things.”

The moment.  What will I bring?

Number one thought: BUSTED for not packing sooner! 

Number two thought: We may never see this house again. 

And Number three: What can’t I live without?

The answer, as deeply personal as the one in the NY Times article posted by my college roommate on Long Island:  People and Pets, of course (What the heck will I do with a tortoise in the shelter at Qualcomm Stadium?  And I’ll never catch the cats.  What about Cody’s poor goldfish!  Will they die in a plastic baggie?). 

But after the People and Pets?  And after the People and Pets Accoutrements of pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, doggie bed, purse, jackets, and all the bottled water and snack food that could be found in the kitchen?

I still remember this one image: opening my closet door and staring at my much-coveted wardrobe.  All those black dresses and yummy blouses and ShoesShoesShoes.  And I remember thinking, “Yuk.  Who cares?”

Another ridiculous clotheshorse bites the dust, I thought, as I went for what did matter—memories and art.  People who have gone.  Photos of childhood, of babyhood, of grandparents and old friends.  I grabbed diaries and letters that I never read anymore but cherish as personal history.  I grabbed a few favorite books and some paintings, both great and childish.  And yes, I grabbed my fiction manuscripts, a combination of over twenty years of unpaid craft.

I barely glanced at our horde of technology, to tell the truth.  Laptop came with, since it belonged to my employer.  And a portable radio.  But that’s it.

We turned out to be very lucky; the evacuation was short-lived; our home saved by heroic firefighters.  And when we returned to that home, I felt changed.  Didn’t care about clothes shopping for a long, long time.  Didn’t take anything for granted for a long, long time: simple things such as clean air to breath, a home to live in, a child who felt safe.

Which brings me to tomorrow: Thanksgiving. 

I am thankful for the love and life of everyone who has been in my life, past and present.  I’m thankful that my friends in the east are okay, though badly shaken.  I’m thankful to have my mother with us though this year we lost my father.  I am thankful that I know what matters, what I would take in an evacuation.

I need to relearn that Who-Cares-About-The-Clothes lesson, though.  Memory can be fickle when you’re a clotheshorse…

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

I’m from Long Island but not living there anymore.  I’m a New Yorker at heart and manner but a California resident on my driver’s license.  Like much of the world and certainly most of the United States (except for those many places in trouble and / or without power), I spent days glued to the TV, watching the desecration of Sandy the Superstorm.  Violent, capricious, cruel, and startling, Sandy trashed my home while I sat safely in a warm, brightly lit living room 3,000 miles away.

“But that’s not your home anymore,” my son said reasonably.  “This is.”

Yes, he’s right.  And no, he’s not right.

The people are still there.  THE people.  The childhood friends, the high school chums and boyfriends, the cousins and college roommates.  My grandparents lived and died in New York.  My parents grew up in Brooklyn.  The place is in my blood; imprinted on my soul.

I miss my friends. 

Are they okay?  How are they coping with dark, cold, fear, unknown?  With loss? 

New Yorkers are hardy.  But still.

It’s also tough seeing the land itself harmed: Long Island.  The seaside towns, the incomparable beaches that San Diegans rarely seem to recognize as magnificent, the charm and personality of this county and that.  The pine trees and autumn color.  The mad nostalgia of the place, unbelievably churned by such alien winds, by a hurricane of all things—something I never came near experiencing while growing up.

Not that Weather is unknown to anyone raised in a place of four seasons.  Who can forget being stuck in the house for a week after a mammoth snow / ice storm blocked our door and covered cars and made roads impassable?  I recall hiking to the 7-11 for milk. My family slept by the fireplace for a week after the power went out.  And I remember a type of cold that I don’t know how to describe to my son.

But that was not a hurricane.  That was not a Superstorm, the worst storm our country has ever seen.  My home-away-from-home has been hurt…and like an estranged parent I yearn to run over there and clean its wounds.  Not that I would be useful, in all likelihood.  I truly don’t know how resilient I am anymore, after living for so long with dry hot weather, the occasional rainstorm an adventure, and snow a thrilling vacation…

New Yorkers will get through this calamity, as they have gotten through others, without my useless and misplaced nostalgia.  Nonetheless, I would like to say how much I admire their energy and community spirit.  AND their unquenchable humor, even during tough times.  “It’s dark and cold and I’m cranky,” posted one friend via cell.  “It’s not dark or cold but I’m still cranky,” quipped another friend.

Thanks, New York, for hanging in there no matter what.  You’re an inspiration…

This was my son’s earnest question, asked two days ago.  Halloween is next week.  He is in ninth grade.  He’s been ill for much of this “pumpkin patch season,” as we used to call it.  And the weather is exactly the way we like it: reminiscent of crisp apples and crispier nights, of the woodsy breath of fireplaces, of the anticipation of football games and cozy sweaters.  Trick-or-Treating weather.  Yippee! 

“I’m not too old for that?” he asked softly, prepared to be disappointed.

I may be immature (I won’t dwell on the towel I used as a “diaper” for my baby costume when I was fourteen). I may have too much whimsy in me and too many costumes in my closet from the combination of plays, Renaissance Faires, dance recitals and Halloweens.  I may not be the best teacher in this topic of when it is too late to play, to be silly and irreverent, to be imaginative, to knock on doors and chat lightly with new neighbors, to accept a small gift of candy in exchange for the visit—but this is my heartfelt opinion.

Halloween is the only time that we can try on any identify whatsoever.  When else do children and grownups get to choose who they are—male or female, nice or nasty, enchanted or condemned—without disapproval or censure from the world?  Even before motherhood, I enjoyed picking which character I would usurp that year.  Feeling bloated and crabby?  Turn into a blobby ghost or a monster.  Tired of the modern rat race?  Become a pirate.  Need more sex, morebling?  Transform into a belly dancer, a flapper, a gypsy. I don’t care for masks—it’s hard to breathe through the little holes, and I’ll never forget the years of the October wildfires, when the air was so difficult to breathe in the first place.  We skipped Halloween then, though my son was little.  But no fires this year, thank goodness, if he is not “too old” to go. 

 

What about the other, more mature Halloween options?  Yes, greeting Trick-or-Treaters at our own front door is also a grand thing.  But in the last few years no one has knocked; maybe because our neighborhood has no sidewalks and few lights and thus might be genuinely scary instead of pretend scary.  Who knows.  Maybe the party tradition is taking over—and parties are also a grand thing, especially when you get to wrap loved ones in rolls of toilet paper and admire your handiwork.

Still, it’s not the same.  Sorry: it just isn’t.  Parties are planned, coordinated.  Haunted Houses are wild and fun but crowded and expensive.  Trick-or-Treating, or “guising” is…old-fashioned.  Simple.  Friendly.  It’s the 1950’s transported to our modern age.  Families decorate their houses so differently: a spider web here, a monster or skull there, and maybe lights or groaning sounds or some kind of cat with glowing eyes or a zombie that pops out of the bushes…it’s ALL juvenile.  Which is why we like it.  And it’s not a video game.  Yay!

So: No, son, you are not too old to go Trick-or Treating.  But wear a costume.  And make it a good one, entertaining or scary or original…and have fun. That’s what this country’s Halloween is all about.

And P.S.:  Can I go with you?  Or are you too old for that?

 

“Hey—who’s that?  She’s short!” my father cried when I first walked in his front door with the new 12-pound mutt Pumpernickel trotting happily behind me.

My dad, you understand, was short too.  It’s in the Menasche genes (or jeans).  I mean, my Aunt Mary was a head shorter than my father, and my father in his old age was a head shorter than I am (30 years of dentistry did NOT help his posture—or his height).  And I am only 5’4”. 

So it’s a short family.  We look up a lot.  We exchange glances and sardonic comments when tall people enter our domain.  For example, when I told my father about my new 6’4” boyfriend, he said: “That’s obscene; there needs to be an upper limit to these things.”

“Be nice,” I warned him.  “No tall jokes, please.”

“Would I do that? I don’t discriminate against people for being too tall,” he returned, dead-pan.  Then: “When I stand up to shake his hand, just tell him I’m sitting down.”

As it turned out, when Dad met my new 6’4” boyfriend he acted politely and graciously.  He only started in with the one-liners the moment after the tall person in question had gone from the premises.  “Ah, the Have’s,” my father stated, sighing dramatically, “and the Have-nots!”

You see the theme.  My mother was once, long long ago, engaged to a TALL blond man named Murray.  My father followed in Murray’s oversized footprints.  “Murray was dashing,” my father liked to quip, always in my mother’s presence, “but I had nice eyes.”

But I digress: back to the dog.

Pumpernickel is even shorter than Aunt Mary.  Pumpernickel trotted into my parents’ house, white-tipped tail wagging, all love and cuteness—and my father’s face lit up.  “She’s short, but she’s awfully cute,” he beamed.  And so began the never-ending litany of dog comments, observations, metaphors, descriptions, jokes, and imitations.

I guess we also have OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) in the Menasche genes…

Pumpernickel is now 8; we adopted her at age 1.  This means that the dog witnessed the joy of my father’s humor and exuberance, then his decline into illness and depression and death.  But in the meantime…oh, in the meantime:

 

“How come her expression never changes?  She’s got kind of a poker face.”

“I can’t pet you all day, Pumpernickel; I’m a married man.”

“Hi, Pumpernickel!  Where’s Rye and Sourdough?”

“Pumpernickel is a good listener.  She doesn’t talk much.”

“Pumpernickel doesn’t know she’s a dog; nobody told her.”

“Why do you have such a long name for such a short dog?”

“She’s dreaming about chicken.  Pumpernickel, too much chicken is no good.  You need variety.”

“Pumpernickel, you’re getting fat; you need to go on Weight Watchers.”

“Pumpernickel’s a lady; she’s dainty-like.”

“Pumpernickel’s so cute I wanna eat her with a slice of cheese.”

“Pumpernickel shakes a lot; she’s the sensitive type.”

AND, let us not forget the caption for the attached photo:

“Why are her paws bent like that?”

 

Later on, when my father was bed-ridden, the dog would jump up onto his bed (against my mother’s rules) and lay her head on my father’s hand.  Of course this dog didn’t care that he was fading away.  She didn’t mind that the room was dark, the ambiance sad.  She gave him all of her shortness and cuteness, and he gave it back.

“Take care of Pumpernickel,” he told me quite a few times.  “She’s a special dog.”

He’d already told me many times to take care of his grandson, a fellow scientist and humorist and the apple of his eye.  But Dad had to mention the dog.  Again.

And though he hadn’t asked me to take care of his wife, my mother, I promised that too.  I understood that some things can be said, and some can’t. 

My dog, Pumpernickel, helped him express so many things.  Like: “Isn’t life funny?” and “I notice everything” and “Life never gets boring” and “I will be a good sport, even when I’m trying to ‘kick the bucket.’”

Pumpernickel helped him say, “I love to laugh, I love to tease, I love my family.”

Imitating the dog gave my father permission to play.  Imitating the dog kept him young.

His imitating the dog, even toward the end, gave us all courage and strength and perspective.

It also gave us some awesome memories and ridiculously funny photos.

I’m so glad that Pumpernickel is short…  

On January 22, 2012, my family received the phone call.  My dentist-historian-comedian father had died, age 91.  He died just four hours after we’d visited his hospital bedside, four hours after Mom, sister Irene, and I sang folk songs to him with the guitar, four hours after my mother held his hand and spoke softly into his keenly intelligent and very sad brown eyes.

My parents were married for 67 years.  And now his humor lives behind my eardrum, whispering into my inner ear lest I forget. 

Ha.  Who could forget?

This is a tribute to him, yes.  It’s also a complete celebration of the most perfect comedic timing I’ve ever experienced--and by the most unlikely person ever, if you judge a book by its cover.  I mean: this man was an intellectual, a bookworm, not often understood or publicly revealed.  Yet friends described him as “Woody Allen-like” and a “Sit-Down Comic.”

That’s my Dad, Salvo Menasche.

Here is the “Why does your face look like in the morning” bit.

I was attending San Diego State University for my Master’s Degree and living with my parents a scant five minutes away from campus.  They were kind enough to let me take their guest room and save money.  They were kind enough to accept their travel-weary, not-all-that-impressively-responsible adult child back into the nest.  And we had fun together, most of the time.  We had fun sometimes at my expense, sometimes at my mother’s.  That was my father’s humor.  Wicked, irreverent, more than a tad naughty and juvenile.  If I am an apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, then, well, the apple might have a worm in it.  But hopefully an entertaining worm, the cartoon kind with a top-hat and a cane.  Vaudeville, maybe.  Whenever I bring a friend home I hope that the “humor” won’t scare the hell out of them. 

San Diego had an earthquake that year, which jolted the garage with a huge BANG.  During a frighteningly lengthy aftershock, my father waltzed down the stairs in his bathrobe like a prince at his court debut.  My mother and I, already squirreled safely under the kitchen table, squealed: “Earthquake! Hurry up!”

To which he replied: “I’ll break my neck rushing down the stairs before any earthquake gets me,” as he calmly sat down to stir and drink his appalling bran and apple juice thingie. 

Then he looked at me.  Feeling safer already, I had climbed out from under the table to sit in the chair across from him.  So this is no doubt what he saw: curly hair electrified in astral directions, features registering pain from acute caffeine withdrawal, pillow marks still etched onto my oh-so-sensitive skin…and my lips puckered out.

Not so flattering.  Okay.  But I do mash my face into my pillow when I sleep.  And my lips do pucker out.  Why?  Who knows?  Maybe I subconsciously like giving my father something to tease me about.  Not that he had any deficit of ideas all on his own.

“What’s wrong with your face?” he asked innocently.  “Why do your lips stick out like that?  They’re out to here.” 

He showed me.  Lovely.  His eyes buggered out too.  No way I looked, or look, like that.  Please.

But I made the mistake of laughing.  So did my straight-man-to-the-goofball-father mother.  If you laughed, you were done for.  Any reinforcement whatsoever would earn you hearing the same joke over and over again for…oh, decades? Eons?  Long past my father’s lifespan?

Which would explain why I still hear his words echoing in my head, especially in the morning when I wake up and look in the mirror.  Or why I still see his mug imitating my mug, and still feel the flutter of joy at the loony fun of it. 

When I had an 8 am class at SDSU, there he was in all his small-statured glory, in my doorway at 7 am, puckering his lips.  No comment necessary.  He was my alarm clock.  So I would groan and push past him and stagger to the bathroom, shutting out the sight.  Except when I opened the door again, LordyLordy, there he was.  There it was.  My face.  My lips.

“Dad!” I would cry, exasperated, and dart past him downstairs to escape.

But he followed.  Of course he did.  He sat next to me at the table.  He did not stop.  I did not escape.

Until the inevitable: I broke into laughter again that bubbled up from my belly.  I cried with laughter.

Until he died and the laughter stopped. 

Except I don’t really believe that either.  I believe that laughter woven into a relationship never stops.  It breathes on, little puffs of vibrant memory like balloons on a string.  Little pushes forward through thin air.  Little echoes of irreverent delight tugging my sleeve higher, toward the heavens.

Thus this particular blog.  Part I.

To Come:  Mimicking the Dog. Part II.

Forgive me, my child, for embarrassing you. 

I can’t help myself.  I mean, I’ve worked sixty hours this week, driven on the freeway about eight, cooked and cleaned and shopped and paid bills and fed four animals ninety times.  That was before last night.  Last night I went to high school.  My life has changed.

Wheeeeee!  OMG!  I get it!  I’m, like, totally, totally…whatever.  I REMEMBER!!!

Here’s the scene.  A football game.  A football field aglow, in front of a fringe of dark mountains. 

Ordered chaos: helmeted players running on the field to the cheers of the shouting, chatting, laughing, munching, hollering, moving, happyhappy bleachers of spectators. 

Music thumping, armies of cheerleaders (now called “dance teams”? huh.) that are really acrobats, as energetic as ants flipping joyfully all over a picnic lunch.

Good looking, glowing, fit (and unfit), radiant or pouty young people are standing in self-important huddles, or busybusybusy selling things, playfully shoving one another, casually arm-in-arm, or holding hands with the first flush of love.

Parents, smiling, overweight or weathered and / or older clones of the bright young things nearby, are proud to be here, glad to be included, committed to their lifelong commitments.

Then there’s the band.  Oh yes, the band.  Uniformed, trumpeting and fluting and thump-thumping on instruments.  And the Color Guard (“Flag Corp,” we called it “back in the day”), dripping and tossing their liquid color onto this lighted field in a dimming night. 

Most of all, picture the school.  Yes: school, which I used to think I hated and now know I loved.  The lovely hive of a High School, with its promise of future, just like this balmy night promises the fall and winter and then spring again…

I love it.  I remember.

Okay, it WAS different back then (“in my time?”).  No mountains on Long Island.  More mosquitos of course, even in September.  Smells of dying leaves, of the seasons changing.  The girls didn’t dress so cutesy (or sexy) at my school, so most of us were wearing Levis and T-shirts.  The Cheerleaders were a much smaller group, impressive but not quite acrobats.  The Flag Corp did more of a military march.  The soft pretzels were the same (we won’t talk about the pizza).  The sodas too.  Maybe the parents were the same too (who noticed?).  Much more importantly, the feel of the place was like this.  And the noise.  And…and…the promise of it.

A crossroads.  Here is the crucible of childhood and adulthood.  Here is the moment, the fanfare, THE FUN.

We can all sense the awe and weight of decisions approaching, of relationship, of achievement.  Oh, and of sexuality (Don’t think about that, not quite ready for that.).

Most importantly, I am not simply remembering this.  That’s my point, the point of today’s blog.  I am experiencing it in the here-and-now.  Night dream bring us that too, of course; they lift the actual person or event or trauma or joy out of the past into our senses, which is so much more powerful an experience than boring old remembering. 

I’m not asleep here.   And I feel it. 

I have to decide, college or no?  Where is Don?  Oh yes, number 66.  God, he is gorgeous.  I love him.  He loves me.  I am filled with this excitement I can barely contain much less define.  Possibilities galore.  Not that I’m thinking about possibilities, not really.  I sense them watching, waiting, lecturing.  But I am in bliss and young and flowering and it’s SO MUCH FUN.

“Mom,” my fourteen-year-old son says. “Sorry to break it to you, but you’re notgoing to high school.”

What does he know?  He’s just a kid.  I have four years of this stuff to take in and savor. 

Luckylucky me.  And after High School, I get to go to college.

How cool is that? 

 

Your dog is depressed. 

You know the look.  At least I do, especially when I am working a lot and distracted or tired or…well, too busy to pay enough attention to her.    

Picture this: Canine chubbiness gone boneless as your four-footed sweetheart shlumps on the sofa, snout laid out like trout, eyes despairing and tail inert.

Awful.  How to prevent such an occurrence in one’s beloved, clinically depressed critter?  Life in a shelter was tough on my Pumpernickel.  How can I keep her mood elevated throughout life’s ups and downs, without feeding her anti-depressant medication?

Simple, really.  Here are my thoughts: 

  1. Walk into rooms with the physical exuberance of a three-year-old wherever dog is located, thereby conveying the message that life is exciting, or about to get exciting.  Yes, this may mean “fake it till you make it,” but that’s OK.  Wear the mask until your face (or the dog’s) perks up to fill it.
  2. Enjoy food in your life by cooking and serving it a lot--especially chicken.  And don’t fuss too much over the eating habits of your slob of a kid.  Life is too short; let the pieces fall where they may (especially on the floor near the dog).
  3. Walk at least 30 minutes a day, occasionally altering pace and scenery.  Get that heartbeat thumping.
  4. Make noise occasionally.  Howl at a joke, yell at a game, giggle at the feel of a wet doggy nose on your arm or a too-long-claw at your stockings.  A little barking now and then feels good.
  5. Don’t worry too much about the future or bemoan the past.  The present is here now, in this room.  Notice it.
  6. Smell and celebrate the flowers.  Among other things.
  7. Chase the cat occasionally.  Ponder the tortoise for insight into its inner rock-ness.
  8. Steal food from others when they aren’t looking.  It’s all in the family, right?
  9. Enjoy small, natural adventures with someone you love, like finding an empty beach to run on, or a forest to walk through, or a stretch of grass to roll over.
  10. Soak up the sun on your face, and watch the rain when it does come, and witness the fall of night from a safe nest on a blanket or couch or bed or floor.

Come to think of it, this is how to prevent depression in ME, especially when I am working a lot and distracted or tired or…well, too busy to pay enough attention to her.

Dogs are wise.  Beyond belief.    

 

I was 21 years old, a transplanted New Yorker and former journalism intern, writing my first professional short story for a Capitol Hill newsmagazine.  He was 36, brilliant and eccentric, running his own artsy publication in Washington, D.C.  From Jamaica originally, this guy was also tall, commanding, unpredictable, and yes, very sexy.  He had finely sculpted cheekbones.  He also had a startling white smile and magnificently long dreadlocks.  He always wore white: stark white in summer, off white in winter.  Always.  “Why would you want to wear anything but white?” he liked to say.  “It’s attractive and smart and never goes out of style.”

This man, my first and most influential writing mentor, had a lot of opinions, all stated with utter assurance, as if anyone who disagreed with him just didn’t get it.  And he was my editor.  He snatched this first short story of mine out of my sweaty hands (yes, hard copy; this was pre-computer everything), skimmed its contents, and turned baleful eyes in my direction.

“How can you become a writer if you can’t create believable dialogue?” he asked in his lilting and condescending voice (not an easy feat to master, those two adjectives at the same time!).  “You have to listen to people.  You have to spy on them.

“Spy on them?” I asked suspiciously.  This guy was a nut.  He was a pain.  He wanted me to spy on someone?  As in peeping through keyholes?

No, he wanted me to eavesdrop on people—any people-- in public.  He assigned me this ever-so-noble task as homework.  For one week I was to listen to folks chatter on line at McDonalds.  I was to listen carefully to my cabdriver’s inconsequential yarn, though no one can call that eavesdropping or spying—who else was the driver talking to?  I was to listen to fellow riders of elevators uncomfortably sharing observations of the weather.  Everywhere I went I became a silent observer (mind you, for one week only), a witness to the banter and gravity of strangers and friends.  And in this process I began to notice things.  I noticed the many changes in English, the subtle signature of slang or inflection or pronunciation or pace and intention.  I soaked up conversations like bread soaks up oil.  Then I released what I’d unfairly taken from others by re-constructing my short story for this Jamaican expert.

He greedily scanned my rewrite.  I recall the princely lines of his face as he glanced up again, and his grin burst out and lit up my world.

“This,” he said, “is real.”

He published the story.  Was it good?  I don’t know because it’s lost in the detritus of my garage.  I recall that the story took place in a cab.  The protagonist was a young woman like me.  The other character was the cabdriver: an old man (well, we all know that “old” is defined as ten years older than whatever age we happen to be at the moment; so he probably was middle aged) with grizzled hair and voice and a cynical attitude.  I recall that at the end of the story, there was some hope of redemption for both characters. 

In other words, as a writer I’ve always been fascinated by tales of redemption and second chances, even back then.

Why am I thinking about this now?  Recently on Facebook I got in contact with my old roommate from Washington.  Recently I had a birthday, and I’ve been thinking about redemption and second (or third) chances.  Recently I’ve been listening to conversations around me in public and feeling grateful for that mentor I once had.  A couple of friends who’d read my novel, Twice Begun, asked me about my approach to writing dialogue.  I remembered this long-ago “homework” assignment and decided to share it.

And I’ve been wearing white a lot lately.  Why would I want to wear anything but white? I found myself thinking.  It’s attractive and smart and never goes out of style.

 

 

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”  This quote—used by Author Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practices for Novices--conjures up a nice image, I think:  a close-up of barefoot (and clean) feet walking crisply along nice smooth dirt, or traipsing joyfully on undulating sand….

Mindfulness.  A professional training on the subject last week described it more practically.  “You can’t fill a bucket that’s already filled,” said the speaker to a conference room full of social workers.  “So if we fill our buckets [read: minds] with present moments, there’s no room for worry and fear.”

I’ve been toying with this idea.  Most of us get mindfulness, kinda sorta.  We know that washing dishes mindfully means focusing on the flow and warmth of the water; the bubbly tickly scent of the dishwashing liquid, the squeak and shine of newly clean dishes; the dripping tangle of clean cutlery.  Dishwashing IS more pleasant this way.  Call my newfound alertness to tasks what you will--meditation, prayer, present-moment living, nurturing the inner child, or just plain practicing a positive attitude--it does create a small, surprisingly sturdy peace.

The question is:  what about money shenanigans during a painful economy?  How do we get mindful of those?  (“Notice the texture of the paper dollar; the empty teacup of a checking account; the reliability of overblown mortgage note?”)  Mindfulness of cell phones seems challenging too, though sometimes I downright love ringtones (mine plays “Bohemian Rhapsody”), and my cute little iphone apps do make me happy when I focus on them, when they work. 

Still, what about the overarching chaos of a life filled with STUFF?  Mayhem, I’m calling it.  Can’t forget that.  No, no.  Mindfulness, as a paradox, means not forgetting about it.  We embrace the mailbox full of junk and bills.  Hear, see, smell, and contemplate the sound of ripping envelopes, the slap of recycling paper, the litany of account numbers and usernames and passwords and security thingies.  Glory in the pristine cat litter after it’s been changed (again).  Feel the hominess of buying food, cooking it, eating it, disposing it, and buying it again.

Gaze with intensity at the teenager arguing with you about getting off the computer.  Absorb the awe of his dewy skin, expressive eyes, and razor sharp wit (along with the debating skills of a lawyer-in-training).  Dwell in the moment no matter what—and then the moment takes on more meaning.  It breathes deeply, making us breathe deeply too.

So yes, I get mindfulness.  Last night after a stressful day of work and meetings at school, et cetera, my son plugged in the little fountain on my nightstand.  It trickled water.  The cat loped over and licked it.  The sound of liquid falling gently on small smooth stones soothed me to sleep.

It worked.  I felt…full.   

 

 

 

Stories. 

While sitting on a bench at the TwainFest in Old Town San Diego last Saturday, awaiting my turn to dramatize a feisty, rather liberated woman who lived 150 years ago, the word “stories” comes to mind. 

Not that this was a brainstorm or anything.  Truth is: I was melting on that bench, wearing nineteenth century skirts and shawls and things while experiencing our worst heat wave this summer.  Whatever brain cells were functioning focused on not forgetting the lines of a four-page monologue.  And the name of our program was “Our Stories.”  So, no, not surprising to think of the word.

Yet, despite the sweat dripping unladylike off my nose, I felt an almost reverence for the multiple arts of storytelling.  I felt it so much so that several days later, while cradled in the mother’s lap of air conditioning, I longed to write about it. 

Before the days of scribbling (read: typing) things for future prosperity—and in the current days of some cultures still more orally inclined, such as the Somalis—storytelling as an oral tradition required memorization.   But it’s much richer than that, isn’t it?  Through stories, traditions and wisdom (or lack thereof) are passed down.  The rhythm and music of language is lovingly handed to the next generation.  Instructions are given.  Heroes are woven from the inevitable fraying of well-lived lives.  No matter what form stories take, the giving and receiving is a magic dance that both creates and preserves.  I felt that viscerally while listening to the actress before me read from the works of Louisa May Alcott.  I love Louisa—feel like I know her, like I’m her friend.  Thank you, stories.  Thank you, Louisa.  It’s that personal.

There is more to the story, though.  Modern research tells us that reading them aloud to young children is strongly linked to language development, attachment and bonding with family, as well as increased reading comprehension skills.  Several years ago, as coordinator of an early parent education program in a school district, I tried to implement the lessons of brain scan research: that our brains are structured—or hard wired—to make connections from experience and patterns.  Our program did that by making a video called “The Brain Game” to dramatize to parents how much they “grow” their child’s brain by simply reading to and with them.

And there’s more….

A recent Discover Magazine article entitled “Study: The Brains Of Storytellers And Their Listeners Actually Synch Up” explains that “the same parts of the brains showed activation at the same time, suggesting a deep connection between talker and listener.”  Which means, to me, that by telling a story through acting or writing, or just plain spinning or hearing a good yarn, we are celebrating life.  We are breathing and interacting.  We share the human experience.

I know, I know…deep stuff while sitting on a bench sweating, about to go on stage.  Or for that matter, while sitting at a desk not sweating, waiting for the plumber.

This is why I act.  This is why I write.  This is why I read.

Just love stories!  How about you?

This was the question that inspired my new novel, TWICE BEGUN.  As a social worker, my job duties have always required me to go a lot of places to witness and assist the people “at bottom.”  For instance, right out of grad school I drove a van full of substance-abusing teenagers to Twelve Step meetings.  Although I’m not an addict myself, I felt surprisingly drawn into the experience; touched by the small miracles of hope that rose out of those smoke-filled ritualistic gatherings (“Hi, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic.”  “Hi, John.”  You get the idea!).  Many a grizzled old man, haggard middle-aged woman with few good teeth, and hardened, cynical, withdrawn and wounded young person surprised me by standing up and bravely opening wounds in front of anyone who cared to listen.

To me, these “confessions” sounded, well, familiar.  Okay, I didn’t and don’t know what it’s like to be desperately addicted to something that costs money as well as my health, self-respect, and the loyalty and sometimes even love of my own family.  I’ve never been homeless (though in this economy just about everyone I know worries about the very real potential for bad luck and financial destitution).  I certainly don’t know what it’s like to go to prison.  I’ve never been in a gang.  Well, I did hang out with a gang of kids in high school who called themselves “The Piddles” because we loitered on the doorstop of Dr. Piddle, a dentist on Main Street, Central Islip, New York—but there were no guns involved, and no fear or terrorizing anybody).  In fact I’ve never witnessed or committed violence, and haven’t been treated as subhuman because of my less-than-humane behavior toward myself or others.

In short, I’ve been blessed with a loving family and a good chance at life.  I had a fairly sheltered childhood and an adventurous but “normal” adulthood (so far).  But…the recovering addicts in these AA and NA meetings seemed to know me anyway.  They spoke of pain that was hard to discuss.  They revealed their search for meaning, often in the wrong places.  They shared universal truths about love and loss and shame.  They admitted anger and expressed confusion.  They wove dreams from shreds.  Most of all, they continued to show up and display their vulnerability.  Men cried.  Woman talked about their children hating them.  Slowly, over time, I found in these stories lessons to take home with me and cherish.  These clients were teaching me. Of course I hoped I was teaching them too, but that’s another blog entry.  The story I wanted to tell in my novel was how absolutely inspiring the place at the bottom can be—despite the rank and stink of some of its details.

TWICE BEGUN was more directly inspired about five years ago while working in a program with men just out of prison.  I was teaching a class on Stress Management when one of the men showed me a book of poetry he had written while “in the pen.”  Yes, this tough looking man covered with tattoos had a soft spot eloquently expressed.  Just one more example of the same lesson: Don’t pre-judge people or keep them in their categories. 

Ironically, the same day, another client asked to show me a song he’d written, a blues song, which he proceeded to sing “a capella.”  His voice was stunning, his desire to carve a new life for himself as a singer rather than a gang member even more so. 

And so my novel was born. 

My thought was: what if the “good guy,” the “perfect guy” in the story, has a thousand hidden dragons—and the “bad guy,” the “burnout guy or loser” is someone to admire and learn from?  Choosing Paris Jablonski, Social Worker, as protagonist was just plain fun.  Making her eccentric family an echo of my own made me giggle out loud.  But creating a romantic relationship between a social worker and a client made me…uncomfortable.  No, very uncomfortable.  Anyone in the helping professions knows what an ethical no-no that is (for excellent reasons!). 

Still, this is fiction.  And fiction provides us with the luxury of thinking outside the box, breaking taboos, or playing with fire (speaking of fire, I thought that San Diego’s wildfires would make a fitting background for this plot).  In the end, Paris Jablonski chose her own responses to her ethical dilemma.  I just wrote it down.

Categorizing my book for selling and marketing purposes turned out to be another thorny dilemma.  TWICE BEGUN has love in it, but is it a romance?  It has some intense social issues in it, but it is certainly far from any kind of rant.  It’s a story about finding comfort and love in unlikely places.  It’s about love never quite defining itself.  It’s about people transcending their categories, or trying to.  It’s about change and hope, and of course about beginning again: a timeless theme, in my opinion.

Why did I decide to publish this work independently?  One publisher called the story original and powerful—but worried that it has too much cussing in one of the scenes for a romance novel (for the individuals involved, cussing is realistic, right?).  Another publisher just plain came out and said that the story doesn’t fit any particular category, the hero isn’t quite right for a romance, and the novel will thus be tricky to market—but could they see some of my other writing?

So…the book itself is like the story it tells.  I chose to try to transcend the existing categories, or create new ones, or just use whatever categories my work happens to fall into very, very carefully.

I’m beginning again, independently, just like Paris Jablonski.

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How many of you are in love with a crabby old cat?  Or still in love with one, despite all logic and rational behavior?  I thought so.

Our cats weren't always crabby, right?  In the case of Linky, the cranky old lady who covers her face with her paws and sleeps that way all afternoon on the California King bed after her morning puke, she WAS always crabby.  Too many years ago to count we adopted her from a shelter, but only after chasing her around the cage to get the privilege of holding her.  A wild, scruffy little thing who'd already been on television due to gross negligence, Linky had Linx ears--thus her name.  And she damaged my ears by screaming like a banshee in the car all the way to her new home.  I nearly crashed.  I nearly turned around and drove the creature back to the shelter.

But I didn't, of course.  Who would?  She had reason to scream.  And she was, well, a kitten.  Cute, small, fuzzy, with a keen green look that seemed to know a slave when she saw one.  She did give the household three solid days of purring and the kneading of blankets or laps or raw skin.  Then she set about accomplishing her life goals.  She took over the house by tormenting our other cat--my beloved Cali, now chasing socks in kitty heaven.  Linky was uber-resilient: a survivor.  She didn't mind if she was swiped at by another animal or shoved off a table by a human.  She didn't care about much other than food and being pet IF she was in the mood, on the head only.  She bit the hand that fed her if she got out of the mood.  She YOWLED if she wanted soft food; or if her water bowl was looking a bit depleted.  She refused to be picked up, liked to dismember flies (yes yes, I know, a future sociopath), and absolutely HATED the colicky baby boy for screaming louder than she did.

But all that was long ago.  And Linky is still here.

She is here despite her obstructive stomach disease and her arthritic walk and her increasingly cranky nature.  She never forgave the baby boy, who is now 14.  She still demands food with a cry that would wake the dead (in fact, I can almost see Cali reaching out from the sky to swipe at her arch enemy / buddy).  Linky can't really digest the food she craves.  She is the poster child for the wisdom of owning pet health insurance (except they won't cover her).  Her prescription pet food alone creates the necessity for me to take a second job.  Yet...I love her.  I admit it.  When she was rushed to the emergency pet center a few weeks ago, I couldn't stop sobbing.  Her cantankerous shrieking while "in back" with the vet (and probably twenty horrified assistants) actually made me smile through those tears.  For I feel comforted by her noisy lust for life (read: food).  I still wait for the sporadic arrival of that purr.  And I still scratch her head (only) to conjure it forth.  The keen green eyes still both fascinate and alarm visitors.  The now teenaged baby boy calls Linky "the demon cat," but I still use her baby name, Binky, and I say it in that ridiculous voice, the one that makes her talk back.

I don't know how much longer she can live.  Every time she throws up I experience a tiny tremor of fear.  She's just a cat.  But you know.  She's my cat.

I want her to live forever (I'll just buy more paper towels and a good set of ear plugs.  And lots of people work three jobs, right?).

This blog is, indeed, a tribute to a clock.   

But like all things, there is more to the clock that meets the eye (or, in this case, the ears too).  More to the point (or gong) there is more about THIS clock than about the time it tells (and trust me, tell time it does. Loudly.)

Today is my birthday and I am not so...ahem, young anymore, so why would I choose to talk about any clock, no matter how charming?  Yesterday I did make a joke that "I'm aging as we speak."  But that doesn't explain it either.

Clocks are not rare; they are not particularly special.  Often we just want to get rid of them.  On birthdays, for example, we may feel threatened by the enigmatic passage of that thing that is relative and does not really exist and yet kills us all in the end. Time.

In other words, yes, we gaze at the impenetrable poker face of a clock and ponder time draining away from us (at least if we're not kids, who still consider time as some kind of giddy accomplishment--remember those bygone days?).  

But this clock is not threatening or annoying or ordinary in any way.  This clock is an antique.  It's a symbol of rebirth and marching nowhere in particular.  I bought it from a pull-over-so-fast-you-knock-the-dog-off-the-back-seat kind of estate sale, one on Mount Helix, where folks have homes larger than mine and clocks prettier than mine.  I bought this ancient gonging thing for a song (sorry) and took it home and gave it to a family member as a gift.  

Then it broke.  We wound it up again and it stopped again.  And so it stayed, silently withholding its exuberant marking of half and full hours, on the wall of the home office.  For years.  Five to be exact.

All that changed last week.  Last week my son, who will giddily turn 14 in two days, said, "Hey Mom, I'm going to fix this clock."   "Don't bother," I said, "it'll just stop again."  He didn't listen, surprise surprise, and ten minutes later the clock was ticking and thwocking and gonging mightily and beautifully.

We hung it on a more noble place, the center wall in the living room.  And we stared at it a lot.  We ran in to watch it whirr into action and settle down again.  We alerted each other the moment right before the clock woke itself up into full midday glory.  Rather than climbing the walls at night from the noise, we let the rhythmic tocking rock us to sleep.  We even redecorated the living room to properly accent the clock.

Call us crazy, if you will.  I may have birthday dementia, it's true.  But I LOVE THIS CLOCK.  It is simple and true and steady, with a lovely mahogany finish and deep voice.  Our clock never goes anywhere yet never complains and it always welcomes us back home again.  Kinda like the dog but not as cuddly. 

So this blog is not about a clock after all, if you take the long view of it.  Remember my alternative title? I am honoring one more simple pleasure of life: winding a clock and seeing it work. Wow.

How is it that the older I get, the more I enjoy the uncomplicated and unsung?  

Gotta go now...it's getting late and I have so much to do before going out to eat.  So bye, till next time.  As Douglas Adams from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy said, "Time is an illusion.  Lunchtime doubly so."

There is an interesting addition to my house these days.  I'm sure this observation will not come as a surprise to anyone raising children.  But there is, draped on the sofa or porch swing or floor, a lanky T-shirted person with bare feet and a grubby face and too much time on his (or her, as the case may be) hands.  

Summer.  Oh yes; forgot about that.  

Summer is the time in which young people sleep late, do fun things or do nothing, regroup mentally, physically, and socially, and spread their developmental wings to become their next version of a butterfly.  Summer is the time in which older people--regular tired working folks counting the days till Friday--may get one day or week off or maybe not.  Their draping summer person may be supervised, or maybe not.  This indolent creature is also invariably suntanned, knee deep in the various gadgets-of-the-month, and full of good cheer or boredom, sometimes both at the same time. He (or she) can get into trouble.  He (or she) will and probably should get into trouble, as long as it's the tame kind, the trouble that finds its way into nostalgic memories.

Summer is Childhood.  Summer is what I have almost forgotten.  

Every year I just about lose the awe and might of it, and then...I remember.  Ah, yes.  

The chimes of an ice cream truck.  Quantity, not quality, time.  I used to spend hours with my friends, chatting as we draped ourselves over the fence in my front yard on Long Island.  I used to spend hours counting fireflies on a hot humid night.  I used to blow bubbles, jump through the sprinkler (alas, no pool, then or now) and play in the streets till way after dark, and take off on my bike and be gone all day.  I used to go to camp, sporadically, and then not go to camp.  We went to Robert Moses Causeway instead and body surfed the huge curling waves.  We hated school and then missed it and then looked forward to it while pretending not to.  You know....

So, here I am, watching my draped person.  And because of him, I get to do Childhood again.  When he runs out for ice cream, I follow.  When he lies on the grass watching the ants, I sit carefully down next to him, avoiding the ants, and wonder at the joy of it.  We actually blow bubbles.  When he takes out the art supplies, I find the time to paint with him.  Sitting on our porch swing, I tell him about the fireflies.  I envy his freedom and rejoice at my little taste of it.  When he comes home from a bike ride, I watch him remove his helmet and run his fingers through his sweaty hair.  This is performance art in so many ways.  I am re-living Summer.

Five years ago, when my son was eight years old, I asked him if he wanted to go to camp.  And he said, "No, I want my time unstructured."  I nearly fell off my chair.  Where did he get that from?  Won't he miss a daily routine?  Won't he get BORED and drive me crazy, especially when I'm working out of the house?

Maybe.  And yes to the driving me crazy part (gotta be honest here). But maybe feeling bored is part of the art of it.  Maybe we need to do nothing in order to more gloriously sprout our wings.  I heard from Morgan Freeman on "Through the Wormhole" (Science channel) that when we do nothing, are brains are as busy as when we're active.  Just a different kind of busy.

And there are all kinds of butterflies, too.  Even at my age. 

Technology-R-Us

 

Hello, Dear Potential Blog Readers:

This is my first blog entry. I have entered the frightening field of modern technology, wrestled widgets and dragons, and come away less bloodied than I first imagined. Please don't get me wrong. I KNOW that computers are, to a writer, a miraculous thing. I KNOW that social media is here to stay; like death and taxes, we shall never escape. And I KNOW that there are advantages to this. This global society, this small puny world, is within arm's reach as long as we do the posting, messaging, clicking, texting, building, downloading and uploading thing. As a writer, I appreciate what technology brings me and my work.

But...how much brain space does it take, all this stuff? If each new language we learn takes more and more space in our brains, how much space does this blog take? This website? This Brave New World for Unbrave little me?

Two weeks ago my son and I were in Central California when we stopped in a little town for gas. A man dressed in white, looking very much like in pumping days of old, rushed out to serve us. He pumped our gas. We took a picture. My son was flabbergasted. Because, as we all know, the world of technology ALSO means the world of Do It Yourself. No one in an immaculate white uniform is going to rush into my home-office to pump up my computer with Blogs, for example. I will do this myself, every week, for the first time in my life.

Wow. I feel a bit of culture shock. But I'm also excited. And a little apprehensive.

Still, it IS an adventure. As the saying goes, a whole new world.

I'm all packed and ready to go.  

But can anyone carry my luggage for me? Please?

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My video trailer... coming soon!

Coming soon...

My sister Irene's site

www.ireneweiss.com

This is my sister's recently opened site, filled to the brim with music and art.  Her song, "Love Again" will be featured on the audio version of TWICE BEGUN (coming soon).