I used to look up at the dark sky, cloudy with maybe a star or two showing through the city haze or gaze around the room I was in, looking at the various objects, so tangible, each with a history: even if it was just a plastic molded toy stamped with "Made in China" on the bottom, it had come on a boat or in a plane, sat on a store shelf, had a life. Or maybe I'd walk down the night-lit street, slick with rain, and listen to the clomp of my boots on the sidewalk. I used to do all that on New Year's Eve and think, "Will this feel different tomorrow? Will I be a different person, will my body's cells have metamorphosed, become new in the new year? Will I be me in the future which is next year which is tomorrow which is still unknown but approaching fast, so very fast?"
I was young, I'll grant you that. After a while, after several years slid past, I knew tomorrow is tomorrow whether or not it's also next year. And then I stopped celebrating so much. Why make such a big deal about the click of one number over to another? It's so random. So arbitrary.
But that too is wrong, I think. So what if it's a number? It's also a marker. You can hold a year in your mind, it's both long and short enough to sum up. It becomes something concrete. 1992, that was a good year for me. A belated six week honeymoon in Europe at its core. 2001, a very bad year due to the obvious and also some personal traumas. 2003, pretty good, in all. The beginning of some long-awaited transformations.
I've had a problem celebrating something so Christian at its core. The year coming is two thousand and four anno domini, the year of our lord. Whose lord? Not mine. As a dating system, it's relatively recent. In Europe, it wasn't used much until Charlemagne's reign in the late 8th century. But when I started poking around online, I found out that New Years itself has a longer tradition. Much, much longer. Try four millennia. The Babylonians celebrated New Years. But they, like modern-day Jews, celebrated in the spring. Which makes more sense to me. Spring, awakening, greening, renewal. But Julius Caesar presided over the creation of the Julian calendar, which we still use. He and the senate picked January 1st as the date to celebrate. January, ruled by the two-faced god Janus. March, ruled by Mars. Roman gods. And the days of the week? Norse gods: Wednesday = Wotan's day, Friday = Freya's day. We still pay homage to or at least touch upon the ancient gods in our daily life. Which puts the anno domini into perspective. For me, it's all of a piece. Other people's belief systems become part of the fabric of our language, the symbols transmuted.
Apparently the ancient Babylonians made New Years resolutions too. The most popular, according to one site I read, was to return borrowed farm equipment. I wonder if our most common resolutions say as much about our culture? Lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with friends and family, stop smoking, be less stressed, enjoy life more. It does paint a portrait of the twenty first century, doesn't it?
This year I resolve to live in my life more completely and with more conviction. Oh yes, and I'll return that plow too.
Dan's cousin died today. She'd had a stroke about a week before Christmas and never recovered. I didn't know her well -- we lived in different states -- but I've always liked her. Diane's father died this morning. I never met him but my heart aches for her. My grandfather died eleven years ago yesterday (yes, on my birthday), he'd come to LA to celebrate the holidays with family and had a stroke Christmas Eve. His death still haunts me. I loved -- and love -- him.
My father used to say that more people die around the winter holidays than at any other time of year, except maybe their birthdays. It's as if they wait for family to come together, though of course it doesn't always work that way. But still, there's something to what he said.
My father. I had a dream about him last week. A dream that he had died. And in the dream he came to me and looked the way he did ten or fifteen years ago when we were still close. I told him I missed him. I cried. He comforted me, after a fashion, but wordlessly. As I guess befits the dead.
My father and I have been estranged for just about a year. It saddens me greatly. It's like a death. I may never talk to him again, will probably never see him again. He exists only in my memories. But still, he's alive and while he is, there is this possibility, however remote, that we will reconnect. Once he's gone that too is gone. I don't know how that will feel. I can't guess. I wonder if he too will die during the holiday season. I know I will mourn him.
Measure out half a cup of driving, stir until arrival at destination in Chinese-dense Monterey Park is complete. You will find a ticket with a number appearing from within the dark interior of the dim sum palace known as Ocean Star. Take this scrap of paper. Hold on tight to it. Allow your belly to simmer half an hour. Go people-watch. Return when that number is called in both English and Mandarin (or perhaps Szechuan, you wouldn't know the difference).
This is the first course of your birthday, a meal of shiu mai, char shu bao and other things you can't pronounce but boy do they taste good. The boy even eats a pork-filled baked bun. You eat turnip cake, pronounce it good. You ask for soda from the busboy, he shakes his head in confusion. You ask someone else and receive your soda but in truth the jasmine tea tastes just fine.
On to the second course, a fine mixture of anticipation, clear-wrapped plastic parts and electronic innards, chilled and set during the ride west on a day streaked with pink-tinted clouds like a day-long gentle sunset. The second course is less edible but no less delectable than the first. A box. Within that box, styrofoam (tsk) surrounding a slim cigarette case. Ah yes, the iPod. Tasty.
(How to solve yesterday's conundrum? Buy the 30 gig, last year's top-end model now priced just $25 more than this year's mid-range. The most I'll have spent unnecessarily is that $25. I can live with that.)
Box in hand but delights delayed, for this part of the birthday meal must wait until room temperature -- dining room, to be exact -- and must be accompanied by a fine wine -- err, computer hookup -- to be fully savored.
On to the next course. Dessert for tonight. Clementine bakery, my current favorite. The apricot buns, the Moravian sweet bread, I could go on for pages describing the mouthfeel, the buttery crispy chewy sweetness. But alas, not tonight. For as we drive up, we see. Chairs upside down on tables. Door firmly bolted shut. Empty and quiet. They're taking the holiday off.
The ability to substitute at the last minute is the hallmark of a true chef, yes? And so we drive back toward West Hollywood. Toward home. We find a bakery, new to us but not so very new to the city. Called -- well, this is a little confusing, this part. Lately called Sugar Plum, a toothy name, but post-lawsuit now known as Susina. This is part of the adventure of today, this part. A new bakery. A new restaurant. A new tech-toy. A new year.
Walk into the bakery. Try to capture the flavor of what you smell, the mingled aroma of chocolate and almond and butter and warmth. This will be the essential ingredient for tonight, that perfume on your tongue. Try also to pick out the best possible pastry for later. Ask the woman and her daughter what's good here. They tell you, in mouth-watering detail. The woman tells you, too, that she wrote a story about the first cake she ate from here, it was that inspiring.
Get a little of this, a bit of that. Some of everything, very nearly. Small, bite-sized tastes. One of the men behind the counter gives you a chocolate hazelnut cookie for free because it's your birthday. A light meringue on a chewy base. Perfection in two bites. Surprising how perfect. Things rarely are.
These, then, are the ingredients for a good birthday. The rest is a matter of timing, tone and mood and the right combination of love and empathy and some warming phone calls. Also a little alone time.
That's all for now. Dessert awaits.
Thanks to the internet in all its various guises Ė- websites, email, chat functions, even the now-quaint newsgroups Ė we know about new events, new developments practically before they even happen. But is this plethora of information an unmitigated blessing? Is it possible to know too much?
My birthday is tomorrow. Iíve been looking forward to my present for months. An iPod. I have big plans for that slim white box. I will put our entire CD collection on it. I will carry it to the car every day, where I will plug it into our stereo system and have extra long playlists for the long drives to and from Damianís school. This means never fumbling for another CD during red lights, never listening to the same CD on endless repeat because my brain and body donít process as well while also handling various driving maneuvers. This means being surrounded with de-stressing sound for the long, sometimes tense trips. This is good.
I will also save my pennies and within a month have enough personal discretionary money saved to buy myself a mini speaker system. This means I can hear music while washing dishes. While organizing my office. While having a bath. While peeing, if I want. In the back yard in the summertime. This also means Iíll have a playlist specifically designed for my fledgling Reiki practice, and I can set the iPod and speakers on a tiny table in the guest room/treatment room. Portable stereo? As portable as it gets.
I will also be able to carry my computer files in my pocket. And when I eventually acquire my major lust object, that digital Rebel camera, Iíll be able to download pictures to my iPod. Instant storage, no computer needed. Have hard drive, will travel.
Iím going to enjoy that puppy. I was planning to enjoy it as of, oh, tomorrow.
But hereís the thing. I was on iChat with my friend Otto the other night. He told me all the Mac rumor sites were buzzing with the possible, potential, maybe-itís-true news that Steve Jobs will be announcing a new iPod or iPods January 5th at MacWorld Expo. For sure (well, as sure as these non-concrete speculations can be), heíll be announcing tiny iPods, 2 and 4 gig models, selling somewhere around $100 or so. Perfect for college students or anyone else on a budget. And who knows, maybe the regular line-up, currently 10 gig/20 gig/40 gig, will get bigger, maybe becoming 15/30/60.
If I didnít know any of this, Iíd go out tomorrow and buy myself (well, Dan will buy me) a 20 gig iPod and be very happy. At least for now. And Iíd probably be philosophical about the lineup change because you never can pre-guess electronics, they update every other week.
But now that I know, I have to wonder if this is the best way to go. Should I wait seven days, see if the midrange iPod gets a boost, and if so, either spend less on almost the same capacity or get a bigger one for the same money? Or should I wait that week and then get a tiny iPod which wonít do everything Iíd planned but will be so very much cheaper and then we can put the rest aside in our Tamar-Wants-A-Rebel fund?
But where does that leave me tomorrow? Presentless is what. On my birthday. Sort of like nobody loves me, only this time I donít love myself or rather I want to protect myself from future disappointment and so I disappoint myself on my so-called special day and leave myself empty handed. And whoís to say announcement leads to immediate disbursement? I remember a two month wait for my G3 PowerBook from the time they were announced to when the box arrived on my doorstep. Does a birthday gift still count if you get it two months late? Should I then think of it as a Valentineís Day present? Itís one expensive box of chocolates. Not to mention, the metal might chip your teeth.
I think what Iíll do instead is call around in the morning, see if anyone in town even has the 20 gig iPod (they were all out of stock here and elsewhere in the days before Christmas). If yes, whatís the return policy? One week? Okay, great. Iíll be there in an hour, can you hold one for me?
Sometimes we do things that may defy logic. We do them for emotional reasons, which are just as legitimate. I wonít say itís bad to know what may lie ahead. Itís just bad to twist my life to fit that possible bend in the road. Better to peek ahead but live in the present. And get my present on time.
The current issue of Poets and Writers has an interesting opinion piece by Steve Almond. His thesis: eschew agents. He has a valid point or two. He claims that authors are in thrall to agents, they look up to them and act subordinate and, well, desperate. A new writers rarely thinks of interviewing an agent; instead, she nervously hopes sheíll pass muster and become that agentís client. And it continues in that manner throughout the relationship Ė the agent calls the shots, tells the author how he's going to market the book, who he'll send it to and then what she should demand in the contract. But whoís generating the material? Whoís the creator? The agent? No, the writer. So why give your power away like that?
Iíve seen all this, transposed to the film world, the screenwriter and her agent. Iíve been that writer, so nervous around my agent I never dared disagree with her game plan. I wouldnít do it again. But there are other options. Itís possible, first of all, to be choosy about what agent you sign with, making sure to find one who respects you for your brain as well as your prose. And then, yes, itís possible to be equals with your agent. Almond claims the agent is the writerís employee. I donít think this is exactly right. My accountant is not my employee. He has his expertise, which is not mine. We hire him in the sense that we pay him, yes. And we can leave him if weíre not content with his work. But we also bow to his superior knowledge of the tax laws. We bought a house on his say-so (though years after he said so, which was our mistake). We listen to him because he knows what heís talking about. Weíre in a contractual relationship, we use his services, but I would never consider him our employee. I think itís similar with an agent and a writer. It behooves the writer to listen to the agentís advice and to grant the agent his superior knowledge when it comes to marketing a book.
Almond is writing from a very specific perspective. He writes short stories. Not linked stories, not novels. Discrete stories. Well, short story collections usually have dismal sales. Thereís little in that for an agent. Unsurprisingly, agents have not been terribly interested in Almond. Does that make them bad people, obsessed with the bottom line? Guess what? It is a business. Thereís nothing wrong with wanting to pay the mortgage. Writers want that too.
His former agent suggested that Almond write a novel. He said he ďwound up spending more than a year writing a terrible book.Ē He does say thatís his fault for listening to the agent and not his instincts, but he also faults the agents who regularly give such advice, saying they give it because novels sell better and therefore make them richer agents. I disagree.
I have a relative by marriage. He wrote short stories for a long time. Good ones. He developed somewhat of a following, but a very limited one. He started to write novels, most likely at his agentís behest. It wasnít easy for him, itís not his natural mťtier. Guess what? He became a National Book Award finalist a few years ago. He got a tenured job at a good university. He wrote a respected book on writing. Heís a big name in the lit world now. Maybe agents have writersí careers in mind when they give advice. Maybe itís nice to have someone in your corner, someone who has reason to talk to editors at all the major and several minor publishing houses on a regular basis. Someone who has reason to keep up with the all-important publishing world gossip in a way that a writer probably never could Ė unless said writer got a job at a publishing house. Or at an agency.
Me, Iím planning to get an agent when I finish my novel. I plan to find someone I like and can trust to be my business partner. And then I plan to let that person give me the benefit of his or her wisdom in the field. And Iím okay with that.
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take this assemblage of mysteriously shaped plastic parts:
and transform it into something more or less, approximately or perhaps exactly like this:
Bear in mind, however, that this operation will take several hours, will involve back pain and eye strain, will teach you exactly how good your fine motor skills really are, and will cause you to wonder why they gave you that Harvard degree anyway because clearly you're not as bright as you thought you were.
It will also cause a small child to stuff all his palm-sized rubber frogs (and one plastic lizard) into their brand new plane, fly that plane out from his bedroom (a/k/a Froggy Land) so they can crowd off that plane onto the tarmac beside their brand new airport and then flood into that airport with shouts of great joy.
Worth it? Oh yeah.
Last night at eleven p.m. I found myself at the local Rite Aid (huge chain pharmacy, bright flourescents and miles of cough medicine). I waited in line at the cash register, barely holding onto the slippery rolls of wrapping paper and the heavy bottles of apple juice, until I got to the front. The cashier smiled at me cheerily. "How are you doing?"
I told her the truth. "I've been better."
"Sorry to hear that," she chirped, and rang me up without another word.
I stood there, feeling positively muddy with angst. A spouse at home with fever and chills, the fifth time in ten days someone's been sick in my house. A child (finally asleep) who'd seen some of his unwrapped presents earlier in the day because I was too lame a mom to either wrap them quickly enough or hide them well enough, a devastated child because I was then a terrible enough mom to yell at him to get out of the room. And my mother who lives too far away was leaving the next day after what felt like a telescoped short visit. Other things roiled in there too, uppermost of all, evil raging PMS.
I didn't care that the cashier didn't respond with any genuine empathy to my non-standard response. Big deal. What did bother me was what happened after I paid. She put on a pre-programmed happy voice and said, "Have a great holiday!" And then waited. Staring at me. I was apparently expected to smile back and wish her the same. If I didn't, I was a bitch.
Well, guess what. I was a bitch.
It's not that I think it's okay to be rude to cashiers. The opposite, in fact. And for cashiers working late on Christmas Eve, yeah, especially them. She was probably not in the best mood herself. But come on. Be human. Allow me my feelings. I wasn't hurting her. I was being perfectly polite. Just not faking it. And that, apparently, was my failing. Because the world revolves around her and I only existed to pass that ridiculous test of false bonhomie. Even though I'd been very clear (though not in-your-face) about my own state of mind.
Things got better after I got home, thankfully. The people that matter do care how I feel and don't demand fake smiles. But I'm still appalled by that woman and the way she looked at me. Waiting.
I havenít written about the holidays yet, have I? And here it is, the middle of Hannukah. Also Christmas Eve. Not to mention three days after the solstice, five days before my birthday, and eight days before the advent of the new year. Smack dab in the center of the winter holiday season.
We have a menorah with lovely multicolored candles, tall and delicate, which means I break more than I light, but hey. Theyíre pretty. I donít know the prayer well. In fact, every year I have to ferret out the email I got when Damian was a baby and we celebrated for the first time, I have to print it out and read it (badly) from a wavering page. Iím good at lighting the candles, though. The ones I didnít break, I mean. And Iím very good at watching them burn down in a dark room. Ghostly. Remembrance of a miracle of light that took place thousands of years ago, witnessed and celebrated by people whose blood flows in my veins, whose genes determine the color of my hair and the shape of my nose, whose sacrifices and struggles shape the fact of my existence.
We also have a fir tree with tiny white lights splashed like dewdrops all over the green along with red and gold balls we bought the first year we had a tree, that first year of Damianís life, and other ornaments accumulated in the five years since: the silver icicles and stars my mom brought one year, the gold doves she brought another, the stuffed penguin on a sled we bought at a tacky but fun craft fair, the Pikachu with flashing lights someone gave us along the way, the elegant blue glass ball we acquired one year in Cambria, the trolley car we picked up in San Francisco, and more. A tree filled with memories and meaning, just the way we wanted it. On top, a star. Gold. With six points. A Star of David for a non-Christian tree.
Weíre not a traditionally religious family (can you tell?). Iím Jewish by culture and ancestry and that suits me. I was raised to value my Jewishness while not actually knowing much of the rituals. That doesnít suit me so well. I wish I knew more. I wish it felt more organic to my life. But I do like that Iíve never been forced into a box labeled with any particular religion and yet Iíve been given the awareness of a long, rich, and painful heritage. My son is fully Jewish by the tenets of the religion, but heís also half Gentile. Dan is himself born of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Damianís heritage is undefined, or maybe over-defined. A plethora of possible definitions. And so perhaps he can enjoy it all. His friend Corey doesnít celebrate Christmas. His friend Jules doesnít celebrate Hannukah. Damian celebrates both. It works for us.
The point, I think, is to celebrate the dark of winter, the coming of the light, the pleasure of my motherís company, the holiday from work and school, the cyclical calendar shift from a waning old year to a waxing new year with its gift of possibility, anticipating the rotation of the earth and the newness of the approaching spring while we look back at the last year and contemplate what changed and what didnít. Since my birthday falls just three days before New Yearís, I end up looking at my face in the mirror and contemplating my mortality, my regrets and achievements, hopes and fears. Mostly hopes, though, Iím an optimist.
Ultimately, itís simpler to just look at the tiny lights on the tree in a dark room filled with holiday music, watch the candles burn down on the menorah, and sip a cup of tea with a spicy warmth that curls into my chest.
I like this season.
So I set my mom up with a blog/journal/web presence last week. She knows what she's getting into, to some extent; she's been reading mine for... four and a half years? Is that possible?
She's been reading along, seen what it's done for me, been intrigued. So she asked and I did and here it is. I love it. I unequivocally love it. It's like looking into a mirror in some ways: we share some of the same flavor and outlook. Not surprising, I guess. I mean, she is my mom. But still, it is. I mean, she's not me.
Anyway, very cool. Go check her out. Leave her comments. Make her happy.
I've been thinking about character a lot. What goes into character. How to build a strong character. The slippery slope inherent in the very concept of character.
On the page, that is.
Main characters, while not necessarily easy to pull off, do at least offer larger canvases. You the reader and therefore you the writer spend a lot of time with these people. Many opportunities to get to know all their foibles, fears, and fantasies. There's time too to build insecurities, conundrums, thoughts of past and future, attitudes and idiosyncrasies.
Secondary characters, though, the ones who trot on stage for a scene or two, leave again to live their own lives in their own book somewhere, trot back to support or undercut or add credibility or counterpoint to the main character. They're tricky. You don't have much time, you don't get that close. How do you the writer build someone believable, someone interesting, someone three dimensional?
A screenwriter I know once said what you need to do is give them quirks. An affected limp, a Chihuahua fetish, a habit of chewing gum and sticking it on any available surface (preferably one that will later get the hero or heroine in trouble). He said that's all you really need. One or two memorable bits of personality, maybe three if they appear onscreen a lot.
That's one way to do it. Not a good way. Sufficient for action adventures or broad comedies. Maybe it works for screenplays in the sense that you can trust an actor to take the quirky bits and do enough homework to flesh something interesting out of not a whole lot (see Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean for an amazing example of this). But a quirk does not make a person. And for fiction, where there is no actor to swoop in and plug the leaks in your writerly flourishes, you have to do better.
The problem, I've found, is that you can come up with a reasonable facsimile of character by assembling some attitudes and interesting life events, but what ends up happening is that you don't have enough time to develop said events in this glorified walk-on role, and thus you get a single note played again and yet again, making the character more of a characteristic.
I now think the answer may lie in contradiction. If I say one thing and do another, I'm instantly more intriguing. If I do something that you interpret one way: "she's so sweet for thinking of me with this diamond necklace" and then you find out the real motivation and it changes your opinion: "she just wanted to make sure I was looking down when she snuck that Chihuahua past security in her coat", well, I've got something else going on. This is maybe not the best example, because it too is simplistic (not to mention over the top). But you get the idea. And two or three contradictions are better than one. Two or three layers of shifting meaning or just shifting reaction. ("She was nice to me yesterday but now she's being kind of a bitch. Oh, she had a bad fight with her Chihuahua and now she's mad at the world and taking it out on me. Oh look, now she's giving her Chihuahua to the pound. Boy, she must really be mad. Oh look, she's crying. Awww. She does care. Sheís just seriously fucked up.") You can start to build a sliver of a real person that way in not very much story real estate.
I'm still thinking it over. Iím not sure this is enough by itself, but it's a start at getting a conceptual handle on something that's normally more intuition and experimentation. Making a person come alive on the page. Not as easy as taking a photograph and sticking it into a scrapbook. I think it's more like the art of a great caricaturist, someone who can, with just a few pen strokes, a slithery line here and a scribble there, can define a face so clearly you'd recognize the person depicted therein if you walked by her on the street. This mole here, that downturn to the outsides of the eyes, that spread of nostrils, that curve of cheek and chin. Itís about capturing individuality.
Damian has not been happy about winter. Not because of the cold. (What cold? We live in Los Angeles. Sixty degrees is considered cold here.) No, he hates winter because it gets dark early. Which means he canít play outside. It also means, with his busy schedule, that we often get home after dark, which makes him feel like heís lost the afternoon and canít play before dinner. Heís indignant about the whole thing, keeps telling me he wants it to be summer, he thinks summer is much better, he hates winter, winter should be over already, heís tired of winter.
He told me yesterday he wants to move somewhere where itís always summer. I told him thatís impossible. I guess at the equator they always enjoy equal chunks of day and night, but this little boy wants lots of day, little night. He then decided he wanted all day and no night. So I guess our next house should be at the South Pole. At least, from September to March. We can have another cottage at the North Pole for our second summer, split the year between the two. I wonder if the cold would be acceptable as long as he gets his eternal day?
This evening I told him today was the winter solstice and from here on out the days will get gradually longer. He lit up like a small sun himself, almost bright enough to light the early night. I warned him it was only by minute or so each day, but he said, still beaming, that this time it would happen faster.
Maybe so, kid. Maybe so.
Happy Winter Solstice, and to all a good (long) night.
A few weeks ago the topic at my Weight Watchers meeting was holiday parties and how to withstand temptation. I sat smug in my seat. That doesnít apply to me, I thought. Iím going to, what, one holiday party? Iím not Ms. Social Butterfly, I thought. Iím essentially a stay at home mom, glorified with a bit of this and a bit of that, but really. And anyway, I have willpower, I have self control. Iíve done this before. I handled a wedding and yummy next-day brunch back in early September, I can do this no sweat.
That was before I found out about yesterdayís holiday party for Damianís class, last nightís Hanukah party, tonightís dinner party (we were the hosts), tomorrowís kiddy birthday party, and Monday nightís holiday party for Danís show. Oh, and another dinner party Tuesday night. And maybe a brunch to be planned and there was in fact a party last weekend too. And my birthdayís next Monday and Iíd be sorely disappointed if I didnít have a sumptuous dinner to celebrate.
Last night, I was going to be so good. So careful. I knew I could. Iíve done it before. That was before I tasted the homemade sweet potato latkes. And the beef brisket. And the creamy fruit tart. But mostly those latkes. Wow yeah. How many points do you think are in five of those fried suckers?
But boy were they good. And sometimes good is worth it, you know? It just is. Losing weight, being careful, thatís all well and good and yes, important in the long run. And I still feel committed to that. But if I let those latkes go with only a taste, would that deprivation make me feel virtuous or frustrated? I think thereís a point where you have to say yes to food. Yes to pleasure. Yes to living completely in whatever moment and near whatever wonderful food tray you find yourself. And then you eat apples and Asian pears and a dab or two of goat cheese on your fibrous Wasa crackers the next day and you fill yourself up on broccoli and kale too and oh yes, you get back on that exercise equipment and sweat to the steady rhythm of your feet swishing in those tracks and your arms pulling in constant point-counterpoint, back and pull and back and pull. You weigh and measure and feel your body reshape itself and you feel your muscles expand as your waist contracts and itís all good. But you had that indulgence and that was good too.
Iím a little nervous, I admit. Iím afraid Iíll plow right off that wagon into the snowdrift of fat and sugar and too-exhausted-to-exercise-today. My size six jeans will become size eights again and on up the scale. But no. I think I can have this under control. Eating like this is blissful, but only for a short while. Then it becomes too much. Iím ready to eat carefully again tomorrow. Or, well, maybe the next day. How does January 1st sound?
I got on the Weight Watchers scale this morning after last nightís latke extravaganza. (How does thirty points sound?) Iíd gone up four tenths of a pound. The same four tenths Iíd lost the week before. My leader asked, ďHad you planned to maintain during the holidays?Ē
Plan? No. Is it a good idea? Maybe, yeah.
(But I will eat carefully before and after parties, and I will oh yes get back on that Nordic Track. I miss it. It misses me.)
Tonight, just a comment on writing from another source. It's Writing 101, obvious and known, but still worth repeating and repeating until it sinks in.
I read a review of a short story collection a few days ago. The reviewer liked the book in many ways but felt the author had made the cardinal error of a first time writer: she'd said, not shown what each story was about. She'd summarized emotion.
In the reviewer's own words:
Wexler allows her readers to be lazy and passive, collecting information without earning it. She takes no stylistic risks. The intensity of the stories thus greatly suffers from our not having to work at understanding them. Because she has not drawn us into the story with appropriate elusiveness, our reactions remain merely cognitive: we see her points without feeling them.
I quote this not to rub the criticism into the writer's nose like someone training a puppy not to pee on the carpet, but rather to imbed it in my own brain. I know the rule. Know it thoroughly and completely. But do I own it? I'm not at all sure I do. In fact, I suspect I don't. I suspect that -- maybe because of my years as an aspiring screenwriter, trained to underline the important bits for bored production company readers, or maybe just because I'm a somewhat insecure new novelist -- I spell too much out. I'm afraid you won't get it, you see. That you'll miss the point if I don't tell you. But in doing that I take some of the fun away, don't I?
Note to self: back away from the highlight-subtext pen. Put it down and back away slowly.
First you pull a tiny bit off from around the hole in the wall where the doorknob bashed one too many times. It peels right off like a bandaid off skin. Then you get cocky and yank it down, figuring itíll come too in a nice long strip. Which it does. So does a dusty shower of ninety year old plaster.
You go away. Pretend it never happened. Yeah, so the wall Ė your living room wall, the room you pass through several times a day, that wall Ė so it now has a big patch of bumpy whatever-they-used-before-sheetrock grey wallstuff sticking out amongst the dingy gold-and-brown curlicues of great-grandmother era wallpaper. But you can overlook that, right? So can everyone who comes in. Right?
You peel a little more. You canít help yourself. You have to see if this wall is a disaster in the making, a skim-plaster and sand-down hell of a winter vacation. So you peel and lo! Smooth beige plaster. The wall, clean.
Days go by. He says oh no, he says letís wait. He says we have people coming over, let the wall be almost-normal, okay? You nod, you agree, your fingers itch every time you pass by that wall. Itís like walking past bubble wrap without popping any, walking by a bowl of nuts without grabbing a few. Itís torture.
One morning. You have a cold, you sniffled all night. Your resistance, your willpower, they are low. You kiss your son and spouse goodbye. You close the door. You slip your fingernail under the edge of wallpaper. You pull. Your mother comes over. ďAre you taking wallpaper off?Ē Who, me? Nope. Not me. ďCan I help?Ē Oh. Yes. Absolutely.
Two hours later, two hours of persuading thick wallpaper edges to part with their supporting walls, two hours of broken fingernails, bruised fingertips, happy screwdriver discovery (slips right under those corners), the long, satisfying pull when a whole strip tears off with a loud sigh, two hours of the kind of work one probably should not do while one is convalescing, after that kind of two hours, the wall is almost denuded of that gold-turned-drab, that thick coating. Itís almost ready for its close up: prep and paint. After ninety one years and two hours.
You go take a nap.
This is not a journal. Letís get that straight up front. I had one of those. I wrote about my day, my week, my life. It was fun. Also surreal. As I wrote once, itís like inviting people to become peeping toms in your life. It filled a need I didnít even understand. Then it didnít. Then it felt even stranger.
This is not a weblog. I read some of those. Lots of links. Lots of commentary, usually snide but sometimes profound about said linkage. I like the ones with more of a personal take on what they ferret out. I donít have time for that, though, and Iím not sure I have that kind of brain. Iíd like to do more, actually, more analysis or at least snark on the things I do read (not politics, it gives me a stomach ache), but Iím seldom at home and sitting at the computer long enough to properly websurf and cogitate coherent commentary.
This is not a set of stories, personal essays. I know because the bits and pieces I post are not adding up to more than bigger bits and pieces. The writing is not meant to be particularly graceful though I hope it entertains at times and perhaps makes you think other times. It may even annoy you sometimes. Thatís life.
This isÖ well, Iím not sure exactly what this is.
This is not a problem. Except that now it is, at least sometimes in my head it is. Because I may have made a tactical error. I signed up for the lovely and fun Holidailies challenge. Which is fine, right? I post most every day. I like having more readers. I like being part of a group endeavor.
I forgot to take one thing into account. Although the challenge is for anyone with a personal web page (which this certainly is), the fact is, only online journallers have signed up. Except maybe Kat. And me. And I read the entries posted by some of my favorite journallers and several others that grow on me by the day, and I canít help it. I start thinking in journal terms again. What can I write about my day? What happened today? What is going on in my life? How do I feel about it? I did it for so long, itís so easy to fall into that habit of thinking. Thereís nothing wrong with it (she hastens to add), else why are so many journals on my daily reading list? Iím a journal reading addict. I love Ďem. But itís not something I choose to do right now. (I donít count my occasionally updated journal of Damianís developmental progress; due to its narrow focus, it doesnít qualify, not really.) Iím afraid that participating in Holidailies might change the nature and definition of this page. Iím not sure what the hell to call it but I know it when I see it and it ainít no journal.
Or is it? Maybe Iím fooling myself. Maybe this is a journal in weblog disguise. Big hat, sunglasses, a wig and a fake mustache, but underneath a squishy, squeezable love-me Iím-a-journal?
See my dilemma? Either Iím the cow in a field of Holidailies horses or Iím in denial.
So okay. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe I have to come to terms with my self-definition, wrestle it to the ground. Weblog or journal, declare yourself, Ms. Postscript!
Okay. Insert deep breath here. Wipe sweat from brow. Wipe dirt from pants leg. Wipe smirk from face. I declare this siteÖ
Mine. For better or for worse.
Thatís about it.
Sunday afternoon we went to the annual Venice Boat Parade, a motley collection of home-decorated boats and homemade costumes all floating along the man-made canals. It was a beautiful afternoon, just post rain. The clouds like soft swirled ice cream, the air cool and clear. The water shimmered in the late afternoon sun, the mallards quacked their hoarse calls for scraps of bread, the pirate ships threw fake cannonballs at each other on the water, someone in a tiny rowboat drummed a backbeat giving rhythm to the event.
People walked alongside the canals, spilled out of houses Ė everyone who lives in those narrow, tall houses has a party on this Sunday, it seems, inviting their friends to come see the boats together. Lots of kids. Lots of smiles. A real neighborhood feeling.
I imagined living here, in this almost-secret (but so-expensive) pocket of city. Water, palm trees, no cars whizzing by in front of your house but no back yard either. Houses built so close youíre forced to know your neighbors. So narrow you canít turn around but the roof garden is lovely. Itís a different life from our also-urban existence in our Hollywood bungalow.
There are so many different LAs. Thereís one where you live on a windy canyon road and hear coyotes at night and your backyard is a steep dry brush slope and the city sparkles at your feet every night like the contents of a jewel box dumped on a bedspread. Thereís the one where you live on a street filled with fifties ranch house boxes with every back yard the same size and shape and all the modern amenities and you have to drive in five miles of infuriating city traffic to find a non-chain restaurant. Thereís the one where you live on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the one where you live in a dilapidated fourplex apartment building or a Spanish-style apartment building, two stories, surrounding a courtyard with banana trees and you feel like youíre inside Day of the Locust and you hear every damned word your neighbors say. So many cities in one. (Yes, I know, Iíve stayed solidly middle-and-upper class here in my imaginings; thatís the reality of my life and my friendsí lives.) So many cities. So many lives.
I think sometimes about trading houses. It means stepping into a new life. Like moving to a different city. How do you decide what city, what life suits you? Even within a certain financial constraint (we canít live in one of those houses lining the canal even if we wanted to), you can make a choice that defines the quality and flavor of your daily life. Where the grocery stores are, who your neighbors are, what farmerís market you shop at (if you do), what church or synagogue you attend (if you do), how you feel when you pull into your driveway or walk up your walkway or steps and slip your key into the front door lock. How can you choose that? Is it just luck that says ďMy job is here, my friends are there, my budget is this, therefore I live in this radiusĒ? We choose the way we want to live but it also chooses us, doesnít it? More money means more control, of course. But Iíve chosen so far to mainly stay close to Hollywood. Sometimes now I think about moving further south, further west, even further east (Silver Lake). Each time itís somewhat like trying on a new set of clothes but more like finding a new me in the mirror. A new definition of my life. Iím looking forward to that, whenever it happens and whatever it turns out to be.
I exfoliated today. Yesterday too. Am I the last woman in the industrialized world to learn how much fun face products can be? I've always just used soap (Dove) and water (tap) and left it at that. Well, okay, I also used a towel. But recently I started realizing everyone else moisturizes and uses masks and oils and their faces smell like apricot or almonds or avocado and you could, if you were very confused and it was very dark, make a mistake and try to eat their nose with maybe some peanut butter and an apple, only probably that's in there too.
I'm old, though. Ancient crone old. Which is to say I'm over forty, something very like if not exactly like (okay, exactly like) middle age. I have wrinkles. Admittedly very small wrinkles, and only in a few places. (Unless I purse my lips and make like I'm going to give you a tiny great aunt Matilda kiss, and then I have a bunch more, but I don't count that and you shouldn't either.) But you just know the creases are lurking, biding their time, waiting for my skin to give up the pretense of youth and vitality. And this soap-and-water thing? Getting, if you'll pardon the expression, old.
Besides which, it's not very feminine, splashing water on, sudsing up with a bar of generic white glycerin. I'm all about feminine right now. Happy with my ongoing weight loss, living in my body more. Enjoying my body and my face and even my hair. Doing something most women probably experience at age twenty or even fifteen or... twelve? Seven? I don't know. I was a tomboy. Allergic to the hairdryer, unfamiliar with makeup. Then I migrated to the artsy eccentric look. Colorful clothes, dangly earrings, wildly patterned tights. It's a kind of feminine energy but it doesn't require much primping, at least not my version. After that... well, I gradually laped into schlubby writer morphing into exhausted mom. Not my best look, I'm afraid.
So this is a first. With my mother's guidance, I bought a small selection of Dr. Hauschka's products a couple of days ago. Tried them for the first time yesterday. The cleansing cream has a gentle exfoliant. Putting it on feels like giving my skin a sand bath, which is nicer than it sounds. Very nice, in fact. And the moisturizer (excuse me, clarifying toner) and oil smell so good and feel so soft on my hands. And for the rest of the day, I find myself touching my cheek, stroking it like it belongs to someone else. It feels like silk, like velvet. Why did this take me so long?
Damianís entering kindergarten next year. Heíll be enrolling in the public school system, because we canít afford the thousands of dollars a year for private school, plus heíd lose his extra school district-provided services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, floor time therapy, adaptive PE, the possibility of a shadow in the classroom) and we certainly canít cover that expense privately on top of tuition. Weíd also lose the school accountability an IEP (individual education plan) gives us.
So public school it is. This scares me.
Iím not against a public school education. I attended a total of four schools myself, not including college. Two were private, the other two public. None were ideal, but probably my best experience was in a public elementary school, and the public high school had a few phenomenal teachers (as well as a bunch of stinkers).
No, what scares me is the nature of our local public school system. I know testing mania has hit the entire country (thank you GW Bush and your No Child Left Untested plan), but it sure is bad here. The results of the end-of-year tests determine how much money a school receives. The school principals often therefore insist the teachers teach toward the test. All year. Rote learning. Stuff that knowledge down the kidsí throats. Is it on the test? No? Then it doesnít count, donít bother teaching it.
Thereís also a little extra something called Open Court. (Interesting link, by the way.) As I understand it, this is a literacy program. Every single day, the teacher sits on a chair with the children on the floor in front of her. Every day for a set amount of time (forty five minutes? something like that; a large chunk of the day) the teacher reads from a sheet, does exactly whatís on that sheet, does not Ė can not Ė deviate for a single sentence from that sheet, must say the right words in the right order, no matter whether the kids are fidgeting, bored out of their minds, already know this stuff, donít learn best this way. They must drill, must learn this way and no other.
It makes me sad to think of my restless, eager, hungry child being forced to learn that way, a way thatís so antithetical to his pepper-you-with-questions, try-it-out-himself mind. Our home school, the school he is supposed to attend, is even worse. We live in a very Russian neighborhood. The school population is something like 80% Russian. I have nothing against Russians as a cultural group, they can be neighborly. As long as you make it clear you wonít be cajoled or bullied (yes, I have stories), they respect you and are rather sweet. Weíve got a complete set of Beatrix Potter thanks to a Russian cab driver. ButÖ wellÖ letís put it this way: Damianís dentist has a hygienist who used to live in our neighborhood. Her parents live there still and she uses their address so she can continue to send her kids to our home school. Why? Because itís very old-school Russian. Lots of homework. Very strict, stern teachers. Learn this textbook this way, donít question, just digest.
This goes against what I believe education should be about. A six year old or even a ten year old doesnít need to have multiplication tables memorized as much as he or she needs to understand how to think about math, how to use math, and how very cool and neat and amazing numbers can be. Thatís key, I think. Excitement about learning. Children naturally devour the world, asking so many questions, driving you crazy with it, exploring and analyzing, taking things apart and putting them together again. Why not harness that, why not make learning hands-on, make it flow naturally from their curiosity about the world and incorporate the necessary lessons into that? It looks to me like Damian will be reading fluently by the time he enters kindergarten. He doesnít need literacy drills, he needs to be stimulated and guided. He needs the foundation of knowledge, yes, but also a foundation of a way of learning and thinking thatíll last longer than schooling, certainly longer than facts.
Where does this leave us? Well, the private schools are terribly tempting. I know of at least four in our general area (between Hollywood and Culver City, so within a seven mile radius) that have a lovely experiential learning, project-based philosophy. But weíd most likely be the poorest family in the school, which would absolutely have a psychological effect on me but also on my child as he grows older and more aware of such things. I donít want him to be the poorest child in a rich school just as I donít him to be the richest child in an inner city school. I want him to have friends of various income levels and skin colors and cultures. I want him to grow up with as little prejudice as possible and also to be comfortable with his identity. Heís got enough otherness already with his diagnosis, he doesnít need to stand apart more because of a socioeconomic gulf.
Besides, thereís the money thing. We ainít got it. If we could get a scholarship (will they bend over backwards to give financial aid to a special needs kid?), it would only cut the yearly cost from tens of thousands to mere thousands. Which means no vacations, no new clothes, no meals out. And thatís only elementary school. This is obviously a multi-year commitment and weíd run dry long before college. Iíd sacrifice for Damian if it really was worth it and I know Dan feels the same, but Iím not sure it is.
Whatís that I hear you say? Homeschool? It looks right but I donít think it is, not for us. It fits philosophically and I applaud and admire the people who can make a commitment to it, but Iím not one of them. Iím already pretty burned out after everything this kid has needed from me; I think Iíd quickly grow to resent Damian if teaching him took more of my time and energy than it already does. And I think if we can find a good school situation for him the socialization will do wonders for his confidence as well as his understanding of social interaction. And thatís a lesson that will last for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, thereís the charter school system. Charter schools are more independent than regular public schools. Each principal runs their school like a separate fiefdom according to the charter drawn up at the schoolís inception. They donít have to abide by every one of the school districtís strictures, though they do have to give the children end-of-year tests and those test scores need to show steady improvement until and unless they reach a certain high level. So thereís some district oversight, but not a lot. Finding a compatible charter school may be the answer. Iíve started looking. And stopped sleeping.
(To be continued.)
Damian's in major question asking mode lately. I'd like to record him one afternoon, transcribe his steady stream of curiosity, but one stands out today. Poor kid is sick, spent the day low key and flushed. Tonight he asked, plaintive, "If nobody wants to be sick, how come people get sick?" This led to a conversation about bacteria in the air and whatnot, concepts he already knows. But this time he wanted to know why there are bacteria. Sort of like why is the sky blue, but with a dark twist. Why is there evil? Why do people sometimes die before they're old? Why does bacteria exist? Some questions have no answers.
A funny thing happened yesterday. I wouldnít write about it normally because whenever anything good or potentially good or maybe-will-someday-pan-out-and-be-brag-worthy happens, people always tell me to keep it quiet till itís solid, as if somehow Iíll jinx it by talking too loudly too soon. But then it never does happen, it slips away like sand through my open hand, and I never got to enjoy the thing in public after all, because news that never goes anywhere is no news at all. So this time Iím going to write about it up front. Itís highly improbable and I expect it to go nowhere, but that makes it more fun to think and talk about. No stress, no bated breath. Just ďhooĒ and ďheeĒ and maybe ďha.Ē
So the funny thing, not a big thing only it could maybe become one, is this: we had someone install a backup sensor on the new car, our honking big minivan. Seemed like a good idea to know what weíre about to crash into, you know? The guy who came by is the owner of the company, a fifty something dapper gentleman, his Australian accent colored with a European undertone. He and I talked as he worked. He told me some of his life story. People have started doing that lately, for some reason. When he started drilling the rear bumper of my shiny new metallic baby, I couldnít watch so I went inside. He called me (literally, called me on the phone) when he was done. I came back out. He demonstrated the system. It worked. Nice. Then he asked, ďAre you thinking of selling your house?Ē
Turns out he likes this neighborhood, often goes to the music shops up the street. Lives in a more suburban area near here, would like to move. His wife works downtown so they canít go too far. Heíd be interested.
I brought him inside to take a look around. He didnít respond to all the lovely exposed wood, which was kind of strange because everyone does. But if heís in buyer mode it doesnít behoove him to, right? He has to be cagey. We talked a bit more. He wanted to know what weíd ask for the house. Hell, we havenít put it on the market, how would I know? But I told him what a house a few blocks away is listed for and how it has plusses and minuses (a few hundred square feet bigger but no yard and no gorgeous built-ins) but is fairly equivalent as theyíre both butted up against apartment buildings. I said I donít know that weíd ask that (a phenomenally absurd price, if you ask me) but maybe a bit less (which is still in the realm of the absurd but I know another house nearby that sold for that last month). He didnít bat an eye. I said Iíd have to talk to my realtor before setting an exact price. He said yes, and heíd need to talk to his realtor, run the comps, get a sense of prices in the area. Heíd also need to bring his wife by, see if sheíd be interested. Maybe this weekend, he said.
This is weird.
Weíve wanted to sell since we moved in. Itís a lovely place, 1912 California Craftsman, well preserved, and I adore it. But I hate the neighbors, all apartment dwellers, no respect for our property, and loud to boot. Itís not a forever house. Weíve been working to upgrade it cosmetically (rip off shit-ugly wallpaper, reconfigure the kitchen, add skylights to the dark living room), doing as much of the work ourselves as possible, and then weíd always planned to put it on the market. But lately weíve worried, because housing prices are insane all over this city. How can we move? We canít trade up and if we trade laterally, arenít we ending up in a similarly bad situation, tiny house or terrible neighborhood or in the boonies or next to a freeway? Why bother? Our personal compromise, though not ideal, works fairly well. Weíre in a good (overall) neighborhood, the house is the right size and configuration for us, itís conveniently central. And itís such a pretty house.
But I started looking on the MLS last night, jumping up about 50K in price from what Iíd been considering. If we sell for the price I suggested yesterday, we could make a damned good lateral move. We could move west to an area we like better, with a better elementary school and houses all up and down the tree-lined block. And yes, I think roughly the same size house.
We could put our house on the market if this guy falls through. And we might, but first we have to finish the cosmetic fixes. And itís work, having people tramp through. And we should find a house to buy first, because weíre picky. But we wonít know what weíd get for ours so weíd be guessing what we can afford. And thatís not good because we might get in too deep but also because we might get rejected because our down payment is still theoretical until we sell and in this sellerís market, you need cash in hand to buy. But if we sell first, will we be able to rent-back from the buyer or will we need to move to an interim rental home while we look? And how do you find those when youíre wanting to sign a short-term lease?
Selling to this guy would solve a lot of problems. Weíd have a solid buyer at a definite price but someone who could wait for us to find a perfect new house. Money in the bank.
If it happens, it could be very cool, but I donít expect it will. The wife might say ďAre you kidding me???Ē and drive away fast. The realtor might say ďOffer this and no moreĒ where this is too low for us to go anywhere. Or the guy might get cold feet and not say anything to anyone. Maybe he already has, maybe he drove away thinking ďWhat was I going on about back there?Ē
One way changes everything, the other way doesnít. But Iím already in the doesnít place and Iím fine with that. So no bated breath here, just an ďit could beĒ musing. And no matter what, itís still cool. Someone moseyed on by and thought about buying my house, out of the blue. What a funny thing.
So of course after bragging about how smooth my story was sailing along, I came to a dead halt. Or rather, one of those moments where you say, ďI canít write this. Nu-uh. No way. Too hard. Not fun anymore, can I stop now? Get a job as an auto mechanic, get all covered in grease, with bulging arm muscles, and forget about the writing thing?Ē
The thing about writing from a real-life event? Itís not like remembering that event. Itís like plunging back in time: breathing the air in that long-ago room, hearing the sounds and smelling the scents and feeling the emotions. Thatís the hard part, because of course for a moment in your life to be story-worthy, it was probably a painful one.
Thatís what happened to me a couple of days ago. I got to a part of the story I didnít want to write. The real-life events turned out fine, I can look back and shrug, we can talk about it and say ďYeah, that was kinda weird, huh?Ē But now Iím writing from the point of view of someone who doesnít know the rest of the story yet. Not a place I ever want to be again. Only I am now, because Iím writing it. I write it because itís a good story. You canít go over it, you canít go under it, you can only go through it. Again.
ďSo why not write something brand new, completely fictional?Ē I hear you say, ďSomething without that baggage from the past.Ē Well, I do that too. With my novel. Which is currently sitting on the computer behind this file, taunting me. This next part, the section Iím about to write? Excruciating for the characters. And Iíve invested in their emotional lives by now, maybe a little too much. I know these people, I care about them. And as I write, I am them, at least a little. So yeah. Iím squirming about that one too.
Ah, the writing life. Itís a breeze.
Why do people lie? How can you tell when they are? Have you ever thought someone was lying but then it turned out they were telling the truth? Or maybe theyíre really lying but theyíve convinced everyone around them with their utter sincerity?
I feel so gullible. I want to believe the best from people. I want to think if theyíre not telling the truth, they didnít mean it; they misunderstood the question or the situation, they donít know their own innermost motivations. Something to justify the fact that theyíre standing there in front of me or speaking into the phone and telling me things I know canít be true. With a voice that sounds so incredibly sincere, with nary a bobble or stumble, smooth and firm. A voice that makes me wonder: Is it me? Did I misunderstand? Did I misread, overreact, do I want to actually ascribe worse motivations and actions and really theyíre innocent of all wrongdoing and itís a colossal foul up? And maybe that voice sounds so rational, so reasonable, so honest because it is. Or maybe theyíre just damned good liars.
I caught someone in a lie a few months ago. He was supposed to attend a wedding in another city and cancelled at the last possible moment. The story he told was one for the record books, full of sturm and drang involving the intense security and long lines for said security gates at Penn Station. But New York doesnít have security at train stations. It was a beauty of a whopper, designed to make you feel sorry for him. In that case, I knew it was a lie before he opened his mouth because I knew he needed to find an excuse to get out of coming and also that heís not someone who can do anything the simple way. Truth is usually far simpler than a lie, but itís also often not easy, it means saying something that can be painful either for your audience to hear or for you to admit. And so people twist their stories into something more palatable. Iím not immune, Iíve been known to tell a little white lie now and then. Seldom, though. And it always feels strange as hell. I donít lie well. It doesnít sit right. And so I canít figure out how other people do and do it so well.
I think to lie well you do have to believe at least a little in what youíre saying. Or at least you have to believe that youíre right to say it because the truth is more complicated but also would exonerate you, if they only understood the whole situation. To lie effectively you have to feel like youíre in the right overall only people wouldnít understand so you give them this predigested pap instead so they donít have to think.
It makes me feel so helpless, thatís part of it. Because if someoneís distorting the facts, you canít have a real conversation. You canít get to the bottom of anything with them. You can try, and they can pretend to, but they donít have to change anything, they can just lie again and make it okay.
Someone who works with Damian lied to me this week. Or at least I think she did. Someone else, someone I consider intelligent and thoughtful, thinks this person didnít lie. So maybe she didnít. But when I told her what Damian said (my concern for this situation stemmed in part from his comments, including that she doesnít want to play with him), she said ďI donít want to say heís lying, butÖĒ and let her voice trail off. When a grown woman starts to accuse a five year old of lying? Somethingís wrong there.
I donít know. He is a five year old, this makes him less than ideal as a witness. There may be more truth there than I can unearth. But thereís enough history in this particular relationship, not all of it good, that Dan and I think itís time to pull the plug whether or not lies are involved. And Damian, unlike her, has no motivation to lie. He's not covering his ass, he's not setting her up. He's a young kid with no agenda here.
But it leaves me feeling horrible. What if Iím wrong about her? This isnít a court of law, though even in the courts, judges and juries canít always get to the essential truth. People lie to cover their asses, they lie all the time. Some people lie like they breathe. Some people lie to themselves and so the lies become their version of the truth of their world. And whoís to say I never lie to myself? How can I know? They say the story of a war is told through the eyes of the victor, the other side doesnít get a voice and their tale might be very different. Thereís no such thing as an objective witness, is there? Maybe thereís no such thing as objective truth, nothing rock solid and tangible, nothing you can grab onto and feel the weight of it in the palm of your hand. Which leaves me feeling lost today. Did I make the right decision?
In a way, it doesnít matter if she lied. The fact that we think she may have, the fact that she did do some things (Dan and I witnessed them ourselves) that we find questionable, even the fact that we feel we canít talk to her about this, not in any real way Ė it all means I did do the right thing when I said ďWe have to move on from this. Now.Ē But I wish it felt better. I hate not trusting. I hate assuming the worst. I hate being the one to break off a two year relationship with someone who seems to mean well. But maybe she never did, maybe she lied about that too.
Iíve spent most of my adult life reading fantasy, SF, mystery, romance. I used to say I could only read a story with a plot that pulled me along. But as I got more into writing fiction, it stopped working for me. Iíve had this feeling lately that reading a genre novel is like watching a sitcom or eating a Pop Tart. Fun enough but ultimately lacking any real nutritional value. Empty calories, empty hours. Which raises the question: how do you measure value in a novel? How do you measure it in a film or a TV show, for that matter? Why do we watch and read? Is it just to give enjoyment for the hours we spend with the book or in the movie theater? A smile, a tickle, a rollercoaster ride of emotional reactions, an adrenaline response to scary sequences, an endorphin rush when the protagonists triumph? Is it that simple? Sometimes maybe it is, and sometimes thatís enough. But isnít it better when you close the book and feels something more? As a writer, thatís what I would prefer. But what kind of something more? I tend to think itís about universality, about the writer touching me personally. I think this is why Iíve dropped most of my genre reading of late. Plot-heavy stories donít do that, they donít tend to move me as I read.
Wait a second, what am I talking about? When I closed the fantasy novel Finder (by Emma Bull) the tears ran down my cheeks and soaked my shirt. I walked around for days after reading Memory and Dream (by Charles de Lint) thinking about the artist and the artwork, how a creation can come to life and be something separate from the creatorís intention. In that novel, he makes the thought literal, but itís a good metaphor. After reading Elizabeth George, I often find myself contemplating the central murder and the emotions that led to the act, the power of hate or love to make us crazy.
I think the truth is that I canít stand superficial writing (though I somehow finished The Da Vinci Code, pulled along by the puzzle and the questionable but fascinating theology) but that good writing crosses platforms. For instance, thereís my love for Lois McMaster Bujold. I love how her novels start simple and gradually get more complex and tangled, like a classical symphony. I love how her characters are both funny and heartbreaking (human, in other words), I love how she lets those characters have ugly and sordid and difficult thoughts. I love her sense of structure and how within the context of a fast-paced SF novel, she manages to layer serious undertones about big life questions. It helps that she writes cleanly, clearly and often elegantly. She sometimes disappoints Ė of the last three Vorkosigan novels, I thought one was good and the other two were passable. But I just finished her latest fantasy novel, the second of a new series. Paladin of Souls. I loved it.
This novel, like the previous one, takes place in a land with five gods. The gods inhabit a few lucky (or unlucky) souls, who become god-touched and see the world differently. Like Moses on the Mount, theyíre given painfully difficult tasks. Not so great to be touched by the gods, it turns out. In this case, the mother of the Royesse (Queen) of Chalion, a character in the last novel, is suffering the aftermath of being god-touched twenty years ago. She was presumed insane for many years but after the events of Curse of Chalion she has been freed of that onus.
She starts out the book restless and bored, watched too closely by stuffy courtiers. She goes on a pilgrimage. Things happen. Demon bears and abductions and other sundry drama. But at its heart, the novel is about a dilemma, a Gordian knot of a dilemma. If one person lives, another must die. (More or less. Rather, more than that but you have to read it to see.) I was amused and amazed to realize that itís also a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, complete with a kiss to wake the sleeping prince. Yes, prince. Donít you love that? Combine all of this with lovely moments like the main character noting the incongruity of birdsong after the horror of a battle or giving a demon-ridden beast a good talking-to and youíve got me humming with pleasure as I read.
I finished the book two weeks ago. I still remember it with that level of detail. I still have this dreamlike feeling that I could, if I tried hard enough, enter the world between the covers of that book. I'm reluctant to return it to the library. It lingers with me, like Grand Marnier lingers on the tongue and in the back of your throat. A warming feeling. I think that's all I look for in a book. Easy to define, hard to pull off.
Thereís this short story Iíve had in my head for five years, ever since the event-which-can-be-altered happened. I sat down two years ago and wrote a paragraph. Stretched it to a page. Stopped. Too melodramatic, too full of portent. Bad bad bad.
Sat down again a year and a half ago with a new approach. Wrote five pages with great difficulty. Got stuck. The next bit was going to be lots of non-verbal woman-with-crying-baby angst. The way I was writing it, I worried it would bore the reader. Hell, it bored me. So I put it down, but the story nagged. No, hounded. Write me, write me, Iím here and Iím not going away, damnit. I hate when fiction does that. On the other hand, thatís why Iím writing my novel. That too is a story that never left me alone. So maybe this is just how I work.
But still, even though the story seed tickled and wiggled in the back of my brain, I had no way in and so every time it poked its head out: ďIím still here! Write me!Ē Iíd stuff it back inside. ďIím not ready, go away. I may never be ready. Shut up and find yourself someone else to write you. Anyone want a story idea, cheap at twice the price?Ē
And so it went. But one day last week or maybe the week before Neil Gaiman mentioned in his blog that he was starting his new novel. He talked in passing about finding the tone, and how itís got an easy, conversational voice, much like he has in his blog.
Ah. Yes. My novel has a poetic sort of style. It works for the subject, I think; it lends a certain dreamlike quality to the action (or at least thatís what itís supposed to do). But this short story needs something completely different. I hadnít been consciously going for poetic, but everything I wrote had a studied quality, like a late Renaissance still life. Attention to detail, yes, but everything so carefully placed and so quiet. When youíre writing about how excruciating long stretches alone with baby feel to a new mom, that doesnít work so well. (Donít worry, I am in fact not giving anything away about this story.)
That was that. In the car a few days ago, the opening came to me. And the next part. And the bit after that. Because now I have a voice for it. Not a portentous, slow voice nor a bittersweet, poetic voice. Something more blunt, more ironic. And now Iíve got three pages written. I even wrote over the weekend. Every time I open the file to take a peek, I write more even if I donít mean to. I wrote a paragraph or two sitting at the dining table yesterday afternoon keeping Damian company while he devoured a grilled cheese sandwich. I never do that.
This is of course premature to say and Iím tempting the writing gods by posting this, but I think I have the story licked. Finally it can get out of my head and onto the page. Fully fleshed out at last.
We try to do some wine tasting every time we head to the Central Coast. Iím not a wine aficionado, but Dan is and itís fun to see the beautiful wineries, the elegant tasting rooms set among rows and rows of grapevines, usually against a bucolic mountain background. I also like the ritual of it: swirling the dark red liquid against the edges of your glass, watching it slide back down, taking a sip and letting the flavor sit on your tongue, swallowing and noting the feeling in the back of your throat and the woody aftertaste that lingers in your mouth. Eating some nuts or crackers or chocolate and taking another sip. I may not love wine, but I like rituals that involve and envelop the senses.
Some years ago at the tail end of a wine tasting day, we happened upon a little out of the way place. The tasting room was around the side of what looked like a big barn. It was dark, small. Extremely unprepossessing. Just a room, slightly chilly and did I mention small? Yeah. One guy stood behind the counter, an old man with a serious mien. I remember him as small, hunched, but thatís probably an exaggeration. We talked, we tasted. That stuff was good. Even I thought so. We walked off with a few bottles, including one deep, rich port.
That place was Pesente, a real artisan vineyard. That man was one of the proprietors. They ran a small, careful operation, mostly selling locally but garnering plenty of prizes for their wines. We savored and then remembered that port for years. Dan read a while later that Pesente had shut down, the owners had sold their acreage and retired. No more dank, musty tasting room. No more secret treasure.
On our last day in Cambria last week, we decided to take a drive up highway 46, a road that goes through and to the Central Coast wine country: Paso Robles, the tiny Western town of Templeton, and dozens of wineries. We had no intention of stopping at vineyards: we were, after all, with a five year old. But I love the vastness of the empty mountains, I love the quiet up there. I wanted to take that drive.
Plus, Cider Creek Apple Farm is on that road, with a delicious tasting room of its very own (apple crisps and pumpkin butter, yum). We stopped there, bought decadent treats, moved on up the road. But right there, just before you turn back onto 46, was a vineyard sign. It was five p.m. The sun was going down. We decided to poke our heads in. Test one tasting room, why not? This was our tapas-style tour of the Central Coast, after all Ė donít do anything deeply, but taste of everything we love there.
The winery was called Zin Alley. We slipped into the tasting room and were confronted with huge oak barrels. Filled with young wine, of course. Also a little terrier named Freddy, the official greeter. Also the owner, who offered us tastes of their only two products, a red Zinfandel and a port. Lovely, complex stuff. Not your usual Zin. We chatted. Turns out wine was in his blood. His family had been on this land for three generations, but had sold it off. Heíd bought back a portion of it and had been working up to starting anew. Can you guess what family? Right. Pesente.
We bought a bottle of port. Steep at $40 a bottle, out of our current price range (we bought a car last month, remember?), but we will delight in that dark liquid, itís like taking a bit of the Central Coast back to Los Angeles.
As he talked about his emerging business, how he doesnít work too many acres because he wants to keep everything under his control, how he only sells to one local restaurant and doesnít ship to shops anywhere else (though heís happy to ship to individuals), I couldnít help wondering. So I asked. ďDo you Ė can you Ė make a living at this? Can you pay the bills?Ē I asked because Ė as I then told him Ė weíve been chewing over this question ourselves. How can you do what you love and live a full life, how can you put quality of life before making oodles of money, climbing the corporate (or film biz) ladder and make it work? Does it work to retreat from the rat race or is it a mirage?
It sounds like heís making it work. Heís chosen to do something heís learned at his grandparentsí knees, something he clearly loves, while knowing heís never going to hit the jackpot doing it. But he lives in one of the most lovely parts of the country, life is slower but not mind-deadening, and heís his own boss, making something he can be proud of. Thatís a lot right there.
(For a glimpse of the Zin Alley tasting room, check my photoblog entry.)
For a while, I was a Weight Watchers disciple. I bowed and scraped and gave offerings of carrot sticks and low fat muffins to the WW Goddess. I learned the language of worship: points and tracking, flex points and activity points and, well, points. I went religiously to meetings, thought carefully about what to wear at weigh-in and whether Iíd peed beforehand and was careful to avoid salt the day before that. I walked through the supermarket, chanting ďNothing tastes as good as being thinner feelsĒ like an idiot and when I was at a party, I took one cookie from a platter, feeling oh so virtuous and immediately running off to write it down in my journal. I raised my hand in the weekly meetings, full of suggestions and epiphanic moments from the week before. I smiled at my fellow attendees as one does in church, full of hearty well being and spirituality. I lost weight. I felt good.
I still feel good. But the Weight Watchers worship thing? Not happening so much anymore. Points are useful because theyíre a distillation of calories, fat and fiber, which means I donít have to do as much math. And I still believe in writing every bite down, not to mention every push-up. But both of those are just dieting commonsense. The meetings, the WW literature? Not doing it for me. So many trite sayings, so many painfully obvious statements, each treated like a passage from Dieterís Revelations. Only youíre not supposed to say youíre on a diet because this is no diet, it's a lifestyle change. Which it is, and it should be, because god knows I feel better in my body than I have in years (maybe ever), I have more energy and more stamina and this is amazing and wonderful (except for the part where it completely sucks, but thatís another entry altogether), but really. Come on. This is a diet. They sit around talking about how to lose weight, how to avoid temptation, how to change recipes to make them low fat. They give you stars and magnets for each milestone. What kind of milestone? ďI feel better about my bodyĒ? No, of course not. ďIíve lost ten percent of my body weight.Ē Yep. I agree that this should be celebrated, oh yes indeed. But to do that and then say itís not a diet? Can you spell Disingenuous?
At the heart of losing and keeping the weight off Ė at least for me Ė is a complex stew of self-esteem and self-image issues mixed with determination to break bad habits, along with a new understanding of how to work my body. What fuels it, what stretches it, what makes it and therefore me happy. Also how not to sabotage myself and why I do and accepting that yes, sometimes I will but thatís part being human, after all. I feel like Iím figuring some of this out as I go along, but my compadres in this are mostly weight loss bloggers and real life friends, not the corporately conceived friendliness of the Weight Watcherís meeting room.
And yet I will continue to go and most weeks I will stay beyond weigh-in. Not because I expect to glean pearls of wisdom from the glib presentation, but because I need to hear the voices of other people going through this too. I need to see their faces and, yes, their imperfect bodies and know theyíre figuring this out as they go along just as I am.
I feel like Weight Watchers, with their prefab weekly topics, is predigested Chicken Soup for the Fat Personís Soul and theyíre often asking the wrong questions, but nevertheless the answers I need are sometimes the subtextual ones of ďWeíre here, arenít we? We came back this week. Weíre doing it, yes we are!Ē
Well, that and this week I learned that you can buy a high-cocoa-content low-fat low-sugar chocolate bar at Trader Joeís for when those premenstrual Must Have Chocolate Now cravings hit.
Iíve tried to send my stories out before. I sent one, I think. To two places. A year ago, maybe two. And when I got the inevitable rejections, I stopped. I had excuses: I have to do research, figure out where to query, I have to write another story, I have to concentrate on my novel. Well, sure. But I also had to get over the paralyzing fear. Fear of what? Of rejection. Wholesale, complete, industry-wide ďyou canít write, bitchĒ rejection.
I went to a panel discussion on literary magazines a few months ago. The speakers were all editors. I thought I might get some tips: what are they looking for in query letters, how do you determine what magazine is a good fit? That sort of thing. I got some of that, but the biggest snippet of information was something unspoken but blindingly obvious once I sat down and listened to these people. Literary magazines are a labor of love. Small operations, scrambling to stay alive in a huge sea of indifference. Theyíve got one or two full time staff members and a handful of volunteers sifting through piles of manuscripts. They have to include some well known writers to pad their volumes, to get newsstand browsers to pick the journal up and maybe even buy a copy, maybe eventually subscribe.
This is not the film industry with its calculations of artistic worth as measured by logline marketability and attractiveness to the box office star of the moment. This is a much smaller, simpler equation. In the eyes of one or two people sitting in a dark hole of an office, does this story engage? Does it tickle their particular fancy at that moment? Thatís all there really is to it.
Cover letters sometimes help, yes. Not because the editors are necessarily impressed by prior publications, but because the words therein can make the writer three dimensional to the reader. But cover letters arenít necessary. Itís really just about the story. More, itís a matter of taste. Personal taste. That knowledge takes the sting out of rejection, at least for me.
I went to Duttonís Wednesday afternoon while Damian was in school. Sat down in their little cafť, pulled two dozen literary journals off the shelves, and started flipping through to see what lay within. Are all the stories bucolic farm scenes? Are they avant-garde non-linear head-games? Are they straight, unadorned narratives? Do they feel macho? Emotional? Stoic? Do they have a clear sense of style? If so, what?
I donít know that I got all my questions answered. I canít do that without spending hours Ė weeks Ė reading through back issues of each magazine. But I saw that Journal W is all about the twisty plots, Journal X focuses more on character (to the detriment of style, Iím afraid), Journal Y has stories that are like perfect jewels, each one piercing the heart, and Journal Z prefers stories with a political agenda. I took notes, remembered some magazines Iíd read and forgotten in the past, looked at authorís notes to see what other publications they listed in their brag sheets and took more notes, then I left the store to go fetch Damian.
I found myself thinking about the magazines in the car. So many stories. So many beautifully written stories. Who reads them? How many readers even know about these carefully crafted journals? I usually pick up a book if I want to read fiction. These journals are a whole new world to me. They say people donít read anymore. Whoís reading the literary magazines? Just wannabe writers, feeding on that which they desire, keeping it alive in an onanistic cycle? Iím glad they exist but I wonder who buys them. Maybe I will.
These volumes are fat, many of them, the size of a trade paperback and just as thick. But they usually come out just twice a year, and they include essays, book reviews, poetry and artwork along with a smattering of short stories. There isnít a whole lot of room for a new writer in there. In its way, this too is freeing. Because it means this is a game of odds. Rejection just means ďno room here right now, sorry, try again some other time.Ē Dan often says that a door to door salesman has to knock on a hundred doors to make a sale. If I send each story to a hundred literary journals, maybe I too will make a sale. Thatís ninety nine rejections. I better get started, huh?
Yesterday, I sent out five copies of my latest story, an excerpt from my novel. I could feel the thrill shooting through my spine as I slid the story-plus-cover-letter-plus-SASE into each envelope. Those letter-sized envelopes will probably come back in a few months, postmarked Oregon or Wisconsin, each with a nice little rejection note inside. Thatís fine, thatís part of the process. This is a beginning.
The scene: a pristine, beautiful beach. The craggy, rocky kind, not the soft sandy kind. The players: Damian, age five. Dan, a/k/a Daddy.
The players walk, run and play. Damian stops. ďDaddy, I have a pebble in my shoe. My right shoe.Ē
Damian sits on a rock. Dan exhumes the pebble, replaces the sneaker (the kind that lights up as you walk, with periodic red flashes).
They continue on their way. Until Damian stops again. ďDaddy, I have a pebble in my other shoe now. I had one in my right shoe already so now itís the left oneís turn.Ē
Dan: ďThe pebbles were smart to know which shoe to jump into next.Ē
Damian: ďIf the pebbles are smart, they must have brains. If they have brains, they must be alive. If theyíre alive, they must have arms and legs. And,Ē almost an afterthought, ďthey probably get upset and say Ďouch!í when we step on them.Ē
Makes you think twice about going for a stroll along the beach in your spiky-treaded army boots, doesnít it?
On our long ride north from Los Angeles to Cambria last week, we passed through town after town in the dark, with long stretches of little but moonlight shining on the water to our left. It felt a little spooky sometimes, like riding through a dreamscape.
Then we got to Oxnard, the first big town up the coast. Civilization, as punctuated by Ė what else? Ė big shopping malls with chain stores. Our car sped past huge signs for The Gap, Home Depot, Cost PlusÖ you know the drill. Walk through any mall and most main streets in the country and youíll see Victoriaís Secret, Starbucks, Old Navy, Pier One Imports, Eddie Bauer, KB Toys, Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and on and on. You could even picture the logos and the store dťcor as you read through that list, couldnít you? It was odd, though, driving past those logos on a moonlit night an hour or so into our journey through the quiet. It felt very much like weíd traveled so far only to find ourselves back where weíd started, like poor Alice running with the Red Queen.
I could rant about the mallification of America (and the rest of the industrialized world, to a somewhat lesser extent), about how it smashes individuality and small manufacturers, how it stamps out quirks in favor of lowest common denominator, generically pleasing mass produced objects that appeal to the largest population spread, but I wonít. Even though I do hate all that. Even though itís one of the things I like so much about Cambria, that theyíve outlawed chain stores in their little town, that if you shop for clothes, chances are youíll find something youíve never seen before. The townís two bookstores have their own local flavor and slant, as do all the artisan glass and other tchotchka stores lining Burton and Main. Even the Cookie Crock isnít a cookie cutter duplicate of every other supermarket in a hundred mile radius.
I like that. No, I love it. I spent more money than I had on clothes at the New Moon boutique because they fit my style so much better than the preppy clothes I find everywhere else and there will never be a New Moon opening up at a mall near me. Unlike the mall that just opened near me at Sunset and Vine, a cavernous, unfinished mass of concrete that only has two stores so far. New stores? Interesting stores, with unique finds on every rack? Um. No. Borders and Bed, Bath and Beyond. All that effort, all that construction (years, it took) and we end up with the exact same stores I can find just two miles to the southwest.
Itís easy to condemn the huge chains, but theyíre a seductive poison. Even a pleasant poison. I like the towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I like their linens. Weíve bought ceiling fans (blue! glass! pretty!) and kitchen faucets (shiny! sleek! functional!) at Home Depot, and the selection there beats the pants off its local predecessor, Builders Emporium. Sometimes these chains are actually, yíknow, good. And thereís an unexpected side effect: these big regional/national/international stores become something we can share. If I say I bought a pair of jeans at The Gap and I adore them, you can go there and try them on too. Even if you live in New York. Or Seattle. Or Baton Rouge. If someone on an online forum says she found a great bookcase at Cost Plus, I can go check it out and maybe buy some too. We live farther apart these days, at least my friends do and I suspect yours do too. Itís nice to still be able to talk shopping. That sounds superficial when I say it that way, but I donít think it is. Toni can help me decorate my house from two thousand miles away, I can help my mother shop for a car from four thousand miles away. It means we're more completely in each other's lives. The internet -- websites, email, AIM Ė that all plays a part, but so in their odd way do the ubiquitous chains.
We took a rest stop on our way up the coast. Damian had to pee. We drove through the largest outdoor mall Iíve ever seen; the stores were islands in the midst of a vast parking lot ocean. Big islands. We pulled up to the Office Depot island, went inside. As we walked through the store past rows of inkjet paper and fancy waste paper baskets, I felt a kind of strange awe at the vastness of the place, at the ultimate familiarity of it.
I wonder if thatís why the chains have caught on so big. Itís not just about business practices. Itís about comfort. In a world so confusing, sometimes itís nice to find familiar places wherever you go, as if the world is just one big town. Itís less intimidating that way.
Iím still against the spread of mall-fed homogeneity, donít get me wrong. But itís not quite as simple as that, is it?
Today really started last night when I stayed up far too late fretting (long story related to one of Damian's floor time therapists who almost definitely has to be replaced after two years and a complex history) and then had to rush out of the house super early to go to an elementary school open house (not to mention getting lost on the way with, of course, no map in the car, because that would just be too easy) and stay just long enough to get a flavor of the place and try to imagine Damian there before hauling my ass back to the car to fly across town to an interesting but not easy floor time clinic meeting and when that was over, fly out of there to grab some food and pretend to work on my novel while really obsessing about everything that kept me awake last night (not to mention what the fuck weíre going to do about kindergarten next year), but that was just a short pause in my day because from there I had to run back to school to pick Damian up and then off to a supermarket with him in tow (following the inevitable discussion about just which store we should go to, because there are three Whole Foods between school and home and they each have their kid-related merits, which is of course why we ended up at a Bristol Farms) and then finally back home to put groceries away but first of necessity empty out the various strange objects from the fridge that used to be delectable foodstuffs but had mysteriously congealed into fragrant, strangely textured science experiments while we were off playing in Cambria over the long weekend, but finishing that delightful project didnít mean I could rest because Iíd promised Damian weíd play a game so then it was off to Damianís bedroom to pretend the place was a toy store with two super-friendly (hungry) cats so we could purchase toys he already owns and then it was time to make dinner and sit down at the table to eat only to get up again after one bite and cuddle on the couch because Damian was having an emotional crisis about the fact that it was now night and therefore it would soon be bedtime and he would be lonely and sad lying in his bed all by himself, never mind that itís been that way (and been just fine) for most of his five and a half years and that we never kick him out of our bed if he comes padding down the hall in the middle of the night, but his feelings are closer to the surface these days and lonely is a mighty powerful emotion and then of course it was time for a bath, only not mine (can I have one now, with lots of Epsom salts and candles, please?) but his, complete with froggy game and more unexpected tears which only truly resolved when Daddy got home and we could all three talk through what to do about bedtime and how to help Damian feel better and only then, when Damian felt satisfied and tearless and Dan was ensconced bathside, could I escape to the bedroom and get on the computer and hear myself think, not that I have any thoughts left in my overcooked cream-of-wheat of a brain.
I have a very particular relationship with AIDS Awareness Day and with AIDS in general. Yes, Iíve known several people who have died. The first friend we made in LA, a graceful, perceptive man who told us with a hint of mystery and a sadness I couldnít quite read back then that he was moving back to Seattle, moving back in with his parents. Months later, a friend of his called: would we like to come to his memorial service? Later, an assistant on a TV show I worked on. His boss was annoyed at his constant sick days. How many times can one man get the flu? She learned. She shut up. The office was shrouded in black. Others too through the years, people I knew, people Iíd known. The closest was a friend of my fatherís, a larger than life sharp, sassy, funny, soft and prickly Italian who encouraged me to get involved with Dan.
So AIDS has touched my personal awareness, yes. But my father is/has been an AIDS doctor and researcher since the early Ď80s and so itís touched me in other ways. I wonít speak to my relationship with him here, itís not the right place for that complex, personal issue. But for so many years, Iíd visit him at his loft which was also his workplace. Iíd meet men and sometimes women in the waiting room which doubled as his guest room. Iíd talk to them, get to know them a little. Theyíd call him at midnight. Scared. Sometimes angry. Wanting answers, needing help.
AIDS patients are often the most educated about their illness, more so than people with other diseases. Theyíve had to be to wade through the morass of accepted treatments, soon-to-be-approved drugs, potentially promising drugs and all the quack and not-quack alternatives. Theyíve had to doctor themselves. The people I spoke with were often so strong, so fierce. They sometimes seemed to see my father as their own father figure. I guess that happens sometimes. It was strange to see him in his white lab coat, his soft professional voice in full purr. Their potential savior.
Iíd look at the medical equipment in his little office, the one where his patients sat on his so-familiar faded brown couch and talked of their blood results and inevitably of their own parents and lovers, too, Iím sure, because my father in that white cloak was something of a Father Confessor. And sometimes Iíd sit there after they had all gone home and squint, trying to imagine their ghosts, trying to hear the after-echoes of their words. Trying to imagine myself as one of them. Not that I ever want that, I have no martyr complex. But it was so real, so tangible in that room and in my fatherís life. Almost mundane, but no. Not mundane. Not really. Not ever.
My awareness of AIDS is an odd thing, comprised of so many faces, so many voices on that answering machine. So many files in that black cabinet. So many people. Some stayed healthy. Others did not. So many lives.