Tuesday, July 15, 2014

on being super

 “Everyone’s special, Dash.”
“Which is another way of saying no one is.”
—Dash and Elastigirl, The Incredibles
 
 “And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”
—Syndrome, The Incredibles

Once in a rare while, my mother will call, and we’ll have a conversation that starts like this.

“Hello?”
“[sob] Hello [sob]”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s [sob] so beautiful [sob].”
“What?”
“Your poem. I don’t know how you do it.”

That’s when I know.  And it’s how I know.

I am a writer. I have an undergraduate degree in English, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and a book published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve been writing for magazines and newspapers for thirty years, and I taught college English for 17. My 8-5 job is as a writer in the marketing department of a public corporation.

All writers need an editor, and my mother is a great one.

Most of the time, she calls with edits, corrections, and suggestions. She tells me when a word doesn’t mean what I think it means or when I’ve misspelled one. Her overall opinion is sometimes buried beneath the numbers of pieces of constructive advice on how to make my work better. I trust it. So when she calls me sobbing over a poem or an essay she saw somewhere, I know it’s a winner, and I can't describe that feeling.

I grew up long ago, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when blue, red, and white ribbons were given for first, second, and third place. Back then, earning a B meant you were above average, and earning an A meant you were excellent. Participation was its own reward, the act of showing up unworthy of special acknowledgment.

I grew up to be a confident realist. I know the difference between what I do extraordinarily well and what I do poorly. I know I'm a mediocre singer and a below-average guitar player, but when I do them together, I can make some pretty good songs. Mediocrity is sometimes the means to an outstanding end.

I also grew up to be the same kind of mother as my own—one who is delighted by what her children can do, who is proud, who is frequently verklempt, and who encourages them to excel at artistic endeavors, despite knowing that it may keep them poor, because it makes their lives so rich.

My daughter played her new song for me on Friday, shortly after she wrote it. I listened patiently, ideas and thoughts about how she could improve it swirling around in my brain. When she was finished, I told her it was “very nice,” thanked her for sharing it, and left the room.

We busied ourselves with dinner preparation, and eventually, with a hint of trepidation, Serena broached the subject of her song. She was a little annoyed with me. Did I really like it? Did she really want to know?

We all desire approval, and we don’t want people to think too hard about it because they might notice that a word isn’t perfect or that we settled for the most predictable rhyme (again!)—run with gun, anymore with door—or that we played a big, fancy lick when understatement would have been much more powerful at that moment. So she wasn’t happy to hear that even though I liked it, I thought seven minutes was too long for a slow song and eight times was too many to repeat the same line. She remained annoyed with me all night.

Some parents would have applauded and kissed their wonderful children. And some children would keep hitting the nail on the side or missing it altogether. When do they learn that the things we do well even as experienced adults don’t come out of us perfectly formed any more than our dent-headed children did? How does a 16-year-old girl's song achieve absolute perfection between brain and page? Under-scrutiny is a recipe for a lifetime of mediocrity. (This is only a blog post, but I will have edited it for hours and days before I publish it, and even after that, I will wish I’d written this paragraph differently and better.)

I used to call my daughter the Cal Ripken of Rock and Roll. Serena shows up and plays her heart out. She does so many things well that she can make the team look its best by picking up the slack. She’s reliable, and she’s helpful. And that makes kids who play with her want to do their best, too.

But there are other times when she’s the Babe—the Bae—and knocks that shit out of the park.

I want her to know it every time. I want her to trust me when I tell her that she is spectacular. And the only way that can happen is if I also tell her when she’s not.

One day, when Serena is no longer living under my roof and my wing, and I don’t get to watch her compose music and listen to her noodle on the guitar, I’m going to see a video of some magnificent new song she’s sharing with the world, and I’m going to dial her number. She will answer the phone (if she's still speaking to me), and I’ll say, “[sob] Hello [sob],” and she’ll say, “What’s the matter?” and I’ll tell her, “It’s [sob] so beautiful [sob],” and she’ll ask “What?” and I’ll say, “Your song. I don’t know how you do it.”

In that moment, she’ll know not only that she did it but how she did it. And getting a phone call like that one might even be why she keeps doing it throughout her spectacular life.









 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Tree—or Why the Jewish Girls Should Handle the Decorations

Every year, we hem and haw over whether we’re getting a Christmas tree: the expense, the work, the time, the mess—it’s all a hassle. Yet every year, we get The Tree. It’s always $65, and it’s always the same amount of work.

I move the furniture, I ride along to make sure we choose the best tree, I screw the stand into the stump, I bring the lights and ornaments down from the attic, I string the lights, I put the ornaments on the tree with a little help from my daughter until she becomes bored.  When I grow sick of The Tree and the space it commands in front of the window, I bring down the ornament boxes, put the ornaments away, take down the lights and roll them up carefully, haul all the decorative Christmas crap back to the attic and store it neatly under the eaves, drag the tree out to the lawn, sweep the needles, and move all the furniture back to its comfortable place.

My husband’s job couldn’t be simpler: take the tree out of the truck, bring it into the house, and put it in the stand. Sometimes: saw a few inches off the bottom. Sometimes: straighten the tree so I can re-screw it.

But Marty feels he has another important job, which has necessitated the annual tradition known as Tree Begging. It begins the day after Thanksgiving with a discussion of whether and when we’ll get The Tree. My Jewish daughter and I want it right away. My husband, who grew up with Christmas trees, doesn’t want it at all. Every day, we see if that’s the day we can get The Tree. Because it’s going to happen, and it’s going to cost $65.

This year, that day was the Sunday before Christmas.

Our next annual tradition is the discussion about where we’ll buy The Tree. It’s always Walther Gardens, six-tenths of a mile from our house. My husband argues that it’s too expensive, that we should go to that one place on Loch Raven with the $20.99 “Tree’s.” I argue that spending money in our own neighborhood benefits us and supports good spelling.

With only six trees remaining on the Walther Gardens lot, choosing The Tree was easy. We took the $65 one.

This year, Marty didn’t have to saw the stump. But since my back hurt from moving all the furniture, I asked my husband to take over the lights. It had been awhile since he had shown any tree-decorating initiative. 

First, he made himself a drink of absinthe, a Christmas gift from me, which he sipped slowly while watching videos of his daughter on YouTube while I made Fuquinay Gnog.

Then Marty fixed his second absinthe cocktail and set about the important work of wrapping the tree with lights, taking care to tuck the strands into the tree and weave the branches in and out where necessary, creating a uniform and glorious display of random flashes of color and beauty.  After he began, I peeked out from the kitchen to check on his progress. I clicked my tongue a few times and sighed heavily and paced, returning to the kitchen. Every time I interrupted, he asked whether I wanted to do it myself, and I did not. I didn’t. I did not want to do it myself. So I sat at the table playing Candy Crush Saga and did not look until he was finished.

The absinthe, it seemed, worked.  Because my husband was obviously hallucinating. The green strands of light cord were sticking out at all angles, with drunken loops like elf jump ropes. Lights were strung vertically. VERTICALLY!

I suddenly recalled why my husband was relegated to taking the tree out of the truck, bringing it into the house, and putting it in the stand. Sometimes sawing a few inches off the bottom. Sometimes straightening the tree so I can re-screw it.

The Jewish women of the house hurled insults at him like so many balls, deriding his work—both ethic and product. And when he left to walk the dogs, we de-lighted The Tree.  Serena and I unwrapped the six strands of lights my husband had just installed, cussing and shaking our heads with disgust over the tasteless display.

Our Christmas tree is now festively—and tastefully—adorned. A Hungarian tapestry is our tree skirt, and the gifts I wrapped in sparkly paper wait below to be torn open.  (The presents I ordered for myself from my husband—I got me two photo backdrops and a stand from him—sit unwrapped.)

Tonight, if all goes as it usually does, Marty will come back from a last-minute emergency trip to the drugstore and, when I am not looking, drip large, silver clumps of that tacky tinsel all over my work. That my daughter is his co-conspirator is largely how I know she is his.

By the 26th, I'll be ready to chuck The Tree out on the lawn, but I'll let it stay until January 1st. And from that moment on, I'll look forward to doing it all again next year.

Happy Holidays to you and yours. And by that I mean Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May you get everything you need but only a few of the things you want. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

the ABCs of gratitude: a thank-you note to my life

What follows is an incomplete and sometimes incoherent list of things I'm grateful for right now, in my post-eggnog cheesecake stupor.

Art—Paintings, sculpture, architecture, design, photography, music, theater, poetry: I can't live without them. Even camping in the woods wouldn't be tolerable without some art in it—reading or writing a poem, snapping a photo of sunset at Lava Point. I value the artist above all to make up for his devaluation every day, especially now that online content is stolen.The teacher and the doctor and the scientist and mathematician and speech pathologist and plumber are all important, and they're told every day that someone pays them with real money instead of website traffic or popularity. But we need to recognize that nearly everything we use, do, see, and need has an artist, not necessarily a doctor or a plumber, behind it somewhere. Honorable Mention: Alphabet—Fuckin’ a, fuckin’ b, fuckin’ c, and so on, which allows me to make words and write. 

Baltimore—I owe you a love song, Baltimore. You rock. You cook. You class me up. And you don't care if I wear slippers or curlers to the store, not that I would, but you might have thought those were slippers when in fact they were furry clogs. Your architecture makes our sunsets magnificent. Your trees make our sunrises possible. And your people butter my biscuits. 

Crows—This morning as I write, there's a crow barking outside my window. I could watch the birds for hours, and I have. Thank you, Corvus brachyrhynchos, and your glossy blue-black brethren. 

Dogs—A house without a dog is a quieter and less hairy house, but it's one I don't want. (I'm also thankful for the dog walkers, since I'm not well-built for leash use.)  On the subject of dogs versus cats, let me just say that you never hear about the crazy dog lady. 

Eggnog cheesecake. Honorable Mention: Elastic, necessary due to eggnog cheesecake.

Family, Friends, and the F-word—It’s a three-way tie. You can’t ever have enough of all three, except when you have too much. I couldn't name names because there are just too many, but I'm thinking of six people in particular who have had me in their thoughts more often than I deserve. I'll leave you to wonder. (If you think it's you, it might be, but only half of them would even think it was.)

Guitar, Guild GAD 30—Next to the saxomophone, it’s my favorite instrument, and I’m so lucky that I get to live in a house full of guitar players. That everyone plays so much better than I do is the best part. I am serenaded even when I don’t want to be, and that’s rare. I just wish they'd all play the Taylor instead.

Home—I have a house. The windows leak, so it's cold upstairs. The bathroom toilet doesn't flush unless you hold the handle for ten seconds. The kitchen floor is cracked, and the cabinets are water damaged; the sink is rusting around the countertop, whose veneer is unglued. My house is small, but it is home. It's made of stone and brick, and it’s topped with slate. And nearly everything I could want or need is inside. Behind a painting in the kitchen are the marks of Serena's height since she could stand.

I—That's right. I'm thankful for me.  I'm brave. I have nice hair. I work hard. And I never pretend to be someone I'm not. I yam what I yam, you dig?

Job—I have a job. And though I wish it were closer to my home and less hard on my soul, I’m no fool. I have one, and it keeps me in all the material things above and below the J, and it makes the non-material things a little easier. I have gripes. But I have gratitude, too, and they can coexist.

Kitchen—It's served me well, mostly, for 20 years. For the last 16, our kitchen table has been the place we come together to talk and watch the news. We have dinner together almost every night. But more than a place to eat, the kitchen is really the living room. Our friends visit and play music in it (the acoustics are nice because of the tile floor), drink a beer, eat cake. We do our homework there. I wrote a whole book there. And as soon as we remodel, I'll be writing another one in that kitchen.

Love. Laughter. Light. Life. Latex. So many L-words to be thankful for.

Music—Even bad music is preferable than no music at all. Well, except this. Honorable Mention: Marty, who risked his life to deep fry a Thanksgiving turkey and who cleaned for three hours after Thanksgiving. He does stuff 365 days a year, and a lot of it is music.

Nikon D600—I don’t ever see fully without it. By the end of the year, I'll have taken 6,000 photos with it. 

Orgasms—They are the dessert of love. If one ever lasted as long as an amusement park ride, you'd probably be dead when it ended.

Pale Ale—this is liquid joy, effervescence, exuberance in a glass.  I could live without it, but why? Honorable Mention: Poetry. I could live without it, but why?

Quilt—There’s a quilt on my bed that’s a little too thin for winter, but I can’t bring myself to replace it with a comforter. I bought it right after my father died. It was the first time he spoke to me since his death. He said, “You want it?  I’ll buy it.” So even though it was my money, he bought it. 

Repartee—I love some clever banter with my very witty friends. Honorable Mention: Rum, which makes others' rejoinders seem even more clever than they are.

Sleep—You take it for granted until you can’t do it anymore. I went through so many years of being unable to fall asleep on my own, and now, every night that I sleep is a day I’m grateful.  Honorable Mention: Sonata—because when I can’t sleep, there’s that. Honorable Mention 2: Shiatsu—because even if it weren't responsible for my continued ability to postpone back surgery, it's two hours a week of complete letting go.  Oh, wait. Did you say S? Serena, of course.

"The Boys are Back in Town," by Thin Lizzy—one of my top five favorite songs of all time got better this year.


Unders/Underwear—You know, the stuff you wear under your clothes. Every time you call them panties, a pervert gets out of jail. Panties are little pants. 

Verbs—They are the hardest working part of speech for a reason.

Werther's Originals (sugar-free!)—I used to think these were candies for old people, but when I turned 50, I discovered how delicious they are.

Xanax—Because everybody needs a little break from my neuroses for a few hours.

You—Are you reading this? Still? You. 


Zicam*—It stops your cold. It makes everything taste like metal, too, which helps you not eat the rest of the eggnog cheesecake.


May the time between now and next year's big dry bird be full of things that make us grateful. That is my wish for mankind.

- - - -

*I feel like Z was anti-climactic. But I'm not that into zebras or zygotes or zithers, and I've never been to Zanzibar. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Death Writer: Monday Mourning: The Death of a Father

Check out my interview here.


The Death Writer: Monday Mourning: The Death of a Father: I like to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. I am the author of the nonfiction book Let Me Eat Cake:...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

divots

My breasts are too big.  Professionals from the age of 11, they skipped their training and went right to the C cup.

When I flash on growing up with my breasts, I remember mostly humiliating things: my piss-yellow gym uniform gaping at the snaps; the obvious size discrepancy between the two as revealed by the green Speedo I wore for swim practice and meets every day of the summer for all my high-school years; being called Moose Miller, after the comic strip, by two boys in the sixth grade who had not learned to like breasts yet—or they had and simply acted as boys in the sixth grade do (which, come to think of it, is not unlike the way many men do). Perhaps my most vivid recollection is standing naked in front of a male plastic surgeon as he took pictures of them during a consultation for a breast reduction that I never had.

From my teen years on, I often slept in a bra when I had my period, and my breasts spent the majority of my pregnant nights in a much larger one.  They are the first body part to gain weight, and they are the last to lose it. 

My sister, my husband, and many of my girlfriends regularly point out their size to me, as if they are separate entities controlled by remote, which I use to inflate or deflate them at will.  Some people, mostly men, talk to them instead of my nice eyes.

Last year's mammogram hurt so much that, despite my having lymphoma and needing to do regular cancer screenings, I postponed this year's mammogram by more than four months. And this one, performed two weeks ago, hurt so much that they still throb from the crushing.

What bothers me most about my breasts—more than ill-fitting tops and now-wrinkled cleavage and soreness and wires poking into my ribcage for thirteen hours a day (even now, as I sit in my bed and compose this sad ode to them)—are the divots in my shoulders, the permanent cuts in my bones.

Nothing, save a fluffy pillow, could have stopped the elastic straps from cutting grooves into my shoulders. Surely not fatter straps, which would have likely caused fatter grooves. I couldn't have chosen no bra or a strapless bra or even a racer back, which would have simply moved the groove closer to my neck.  During the eighties, however, I reduced the discomfort and the cutting effect by placing my shoulder pads under my bra straps.  Alas, shoulder pad style was short lived and never made a comeback—unlike bell bottoms, hip huggers, and tube tops. (That I couldn't wear a tube top is probably the most positive result of my breast size.)

In the summer, my divots are most visible. Though the swimsuit straps should fit nicely into the grooves, where they will stay put and are not subject to sliding down, my breasts are too heavy to stay put.  A length of yarn ties the straps together at the back to hold me up.

Most of the time, no one sees my physical deformity except for my husband, my daughter, and a random friend for whom, when I want sympathy, I will occasionally yank over my shirt and slip down my bra strap. But I can see it.  More important: I can feel it.

Friends joke sometimes when they hear I'm thinking again about a breast reduction. "You can give me what you don't want," one woman says; another replies, "Maybe we can split it!" 

I feel a little like a traitor now, having spent the last 600 words dissing the girls, both of whom have served me well in a few of life's most important arenas.  Despite the abnormalities and the pain and the disfigurement they've caused me over the years, I don't hate them nearly as much as I hate my ankles.

I write about my breasts and my struggles with the consequences of their size because I get a little weary of the insensitive messages sent by deceptive advertisers and well-meaning friends alike. Every day, someone posts a so-called positive, uplifting message about how wonderful our bodies are and how we should love them and not fall prey to Madison Avenue's unachievable lingerie-model standard.

Our feelings about our bodies go far deeper than what we look like in the mirror.  I don't know which is more insulting—the notion that beauty is a size 0 or the impression that I am so shallow that I would reject my body parts because of their appearance alone—or that appearance doesn't also hinder function. 

So I'll say it: I don't love my body.  I sometimes don't like it.  But every day, I stuff parts into fabric contraptions and make the best of what works and what doesn't. And my relationship with those parts is an intimate, personal one (though it's not, now, a private one) influenced by gym teachers and doctors and parents and lovers and children and friends and bullies and disease and books and music and, yes, advertising, because we don't live in a vacuum.

Like America itself, the motto of the body should not be "love it or leave it." It should be "love it or try to make it better."  And that's probably what most of us do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

the work of art

The function of your organs is not dependant upon a Picasso centered above the sofa. You will, indeed, breathe without a bound set of pages filled with well-constructed lines of words about a wheelbarrow and chickens.  Your heart will beat, albeit more slowly and evenly, without having ever heard the greatest rock and roll song of all time—whether that song is Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" or Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or Springsteen's "Born to Run." You certainly don't need movies to make your blood flow.

But try living without art. You can't. I am willing to bet that not a single room in your house, including the bathroom, is devoid of it in some form.

In my small bedroom, I have eight original paintings, a mosaic, a silkscreen, a print, a photo, two lithographics, and a blown-glass vase made by an artisan. Some were gifts; some were purchases; some are the work of my daughter or me.

These are the things I value not only because they bring me joy when I look at them, but because I know how much heart went into them, how much work. When we buy something from an artist, sometimes what we pay for is the time spent on that single piece, but most often we pay for education, experience, practice, tools, materials, inspiration, and all the things that led to the creation of that piece of art.

It's the same thing with accounting. You pay not only for someone to prepare your taxes; you pay for the education that taught the preparer. You pay for a roof and walls and materials and utilities.

So a photograph, simple as it seems, is not just a quick capture of a moment in time.

The other day, I took a walk down the street with a friend to shoot some of the pretty flowers we saw on the way home from dinner.  I grabbed my camera and two lenses—about $3,500 worth of equipment—and we spent about 30 minutes walking, examining the flowers, composing our shots, and pressing the button that seems to determine the photo's value in the minds of some. 

My card had more than 60 images when I returned. I previewed each, selected the ones I thought had potential to be beautiful, and went to work.  While flowers are pretty without makeup, my goal is to convey something more than an exact two-dimensional replica of a three-dimensional flower. I want to show you a world, a place you don't often notice. I want that picture to swallow one of your breaths.

The beautiful zinnia you see at the top of the page didn't look exactly like that in my camera. It was planted in a box in front of a neighbor's house, and you could see a blurred-out background of mortar and brick, but it was a little too pronounced for my liking. When you're looking at a flower, you're looking at the flower; the background shouldn't detract.  So I blew up the bloom. 

Next, I adjusted the color, clicked the Auto Tone button, adjusted the color again, clicked the HDR button and fiddled with those adjustments, pasted the previous version on top of the HDR version and erased the parts I wanted crispier before merging those two images.







































Finally, I add a watermark in an inconspicuous place—not because I want to protect the image from theft (anyone with an iota of initiative can blot or crop out my watermark) but because it's mine.  I sign my work.  It's a pride thing.  I didn't spend thirty minutes editing a single photograph so that my picture could be another of the millions of anonymous images floating around without attribution.

Sometimes I'll post that photo on my Flickr or Facebook page. If you like it, you will leave me a comment saying it's beautiful. But the truth is that I want you to buy it. I want you to hire me to shoot your kid's senior portrait or the headshot for your new book or your party. 

And when I tell you that I charge $250 to $350 for a one-hour photo shoot, which includes 25 to 50 images on a DVD, you should understand that I took eight times that number and that each of those 400 images was scrutinized, that the final images were each opened and tweaked, that zits were blotted out, that skin was smoothed, that, ladies, your mustache was softened, your eyes were made to sparkle more, your tie, gentlemen, was enhanced.  What you get is hours of work that's hard on the eyes and the hands and the neck. 


I want you to find the exchange of art for money a valuable, mutually beneficial one that will bring you joy for years to come.

So even though I have that photograph lying around, collecting pixels, taking up disk space, it's not free. My name and a link to my website are not a fair exchange for the work that makes a work of art.

I don't work for free. Period.

Monday, June 10, 2013

the magnitude

My father would have been 76 today.

One of the biggest challenges about my father, second only to being a passenger in the car he was driving, was buying him presents.

Usually, we'd combine his birthday gift with his Father's Day gift to save ourselves the stress. Because he was so thoughtful with ours (he'd call a month before our birthdays, when we were cooking dinner or doing homework, expecting an immediate answer to the question of what we'd like him to buy us), we always wanted to get him something special, memorable, useful—more out of love than obligation.

Every so often, we'd get a good idea, and we'd milk that for as long as we could. Because my dad owned a paving company, and because alligatoring was a thing that happened to asphalt, we started an alligator collection for him.  He'd smile at the inside joke and set the paving stone or paperweight or bottle opener or sculpture or mosaic down on the table, and my mom would find a place for it.

The rest of it—bathrobes, sweaters, ties, socks, wallets, money clips—stayed in their boxes for years because he didn't need anything.  There was a good shot he'd wear it if it had a horse on it, though, so we'd bought him a rainbow of Polo shirts, beach towels, shorts, and enough cologne to drown a polo pony.

Sometimes we'd buy him gift certificates that he'd lose under the seat of his car or CDs he wanted but which still had the shrink wrap on them when he died.  The things he treasured the most were the XXL sleep shirts with his grandchildren's photos ironed on them. In fact, Beth would pay for the shirts and transfers, and I'd take the pictures and do the ironing.  

The last few were a large. We took them to the rehab center on Christmas, and he cried.  I'd only seen him cry maybe one other time in my life, and that was when his father died.  I'm wearing one of those shirts now, a photo of Serena kissing Marcus. My dad never got to wear it.


Today is like the last mile of firsts: first birthday without him, first Father's Day without him, and, in 25 days, it will be the end of the first year without him. 

I have been in a bad mood for eleven months. If I ever had patience, it left with my father. I'm easily frustrated, often angry, moody, pensive, and very lonely.  It would be easier to count the days I didn't cry on my way to work.  I am like a gurgling volcano. It's very hard to tell when it's safe to come near me.

On July 5th, the anniversary of his death, I expect to ooze hot lava for three days, until the headstone unveiling on the 7th, when I will be done erupting and will begin to cool down.  I might have a little residual steam, but I'll probably be safe for the tourists.


Yeah. It's going to happen just like that.