March 21, 2012 – What? You think I’m angry? Does that mean you think I’m angry? (Props to Dar Williams for title.)

Did you ever watch kids with a piñata?  You can tell a lot about a kid by the way he handles a piñata and the ensuing explosion of Dum Dums and Tootsie Rolls.  Some kids will take that bat and despite being spun silly, will swing wildly in every direction trying to connect with something.

 

They want not just to get the candy but to be the hero that will be talked about for tens of birthday parties to come.  “See her, right there?  That’s Maddie,” you might hear a mother whisper.  “You know, Maddie, the one who beat the hell out of that poor Dora the Explorer last year?   Every party we’ve been to since, I don’t even bother to have my Jacob line up if there’s a piñata.  I don’t want him to look stupid and if someone else will do the work, what do I care as long as he gets the candy?  I just position him so a good chunk of candy will fly in his direction.  He’s got asthma, you know, so I don’t want him to over exert.”

 

There are the kids who are calculating.  They try to get their bearings before swinging.  They plan, they measure, they adjust. They are smart about trial and error and listening to the voices of the observers: do they say “Ohhh,” meaning he’s close or do they laugh because the attacker is chopping at someone’s grandma who just came out of the ladies room.

 

Then there are the cheaters.  Those bottom-feeders.

 

You can tell what type of a person the kid is going to become by the way he approaches a piñata.

 

And the parents.  That’s probably the most telling element of all.  Some of the fathers are clearly piñata engineers and give their kids all this advice on height and swing angle, others are dropping a shoulder and scrambling on the floor to make sure their little oompa loompas get their fair share.  Or maybe not so fair.  I mean if you’re sitting in a chair crying about how no one let you have any and you saw that tootsie roll first and now it’s squashed flat…Stop being such a pussy.

 

This isn’t how life works, kid.  It’s just like education.  It’s hanging right in front of you but you actually have to work to get it.  Dora is not going to female ejaculate her Smarties of knowledge and Blow Pops of skills all over you as you stand there diddling yourself.  And your parents can scrabble around like crabs but how humiliating is that?  You’re such an infant that your parents want you spoon fed that which everyone else is learning to acquire on their own.

 

So please, Dakota, have your mother write me another email, and be sure she copies it to the principal, about how I didn’t respond to her last email.  Have her mention how upsetting it was that I instead spoke to you about questions you had on how to better develop the ideas in your writing. Crazy talk, I know.   It’s important that she continue to ask me the same questions over and over again and pretend I haven’t answered them, patiently, every single fucking time.  “How can we help Dakota with her writing?  What does she need to do to improve her journal entries?  What do you mean by elaboration? Maybe you can work with her one-on-one?  Is there extra credit she can do?” they ask again and again.  I understand how it’s a mystery to everyone in the family about how to construct an intelligent paragraph.  After all, I’ve been the recipient of these rambling epistles via email.

 

 

Of course I will act surprised when she shows up tomorrow for a conference I didn’t agree to so we can all just shake our heads in frustration about what a dilemma this is, just to get you to learn.

 

If nothing else, please understand that the less you do, Dakota, the more I am supposed to do.

 

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April 30, 2012 – For all you Mad Libbers out there – feel free to post answer.

Signs you are __________________:

 

You don’t care about anything.

You want to stay at home and sleep all the time

You don’t want to talk

Or listen

Or think

You wear the same jewelry every day

Your toenails are not painted and are even chipped and you don’t care

Your legs are not shaved in a week

You have no interest in anything

You have no goals

You look forward to nothing but sleep, a lot of sleep

You’ve stopped taking care of yourself in terms of eating, exercising, etc.

You eat yourself into a food coma (leads to sleep) but don’t enjoy any of it

Whatever you have planned for the near future, you just can’t wait to get it over with

You have no enthusiasm or energy

You feel a little sick

You’ve lost interest in sex

You don’t care how you look when you go out:  old, stained, out-of-style clothing is fine – stop being so superficial.

At meetings, conferences, church, ask yourself, Are they still talking?

At these same meetings, after each comment that is made, think, Does it really make a bit of fucking difference either way?

 

April 25, 2012 – Toast

Halloween, 1972 was the first Halloween I didn’t go trick-or-treating.  Since I’d been sick for days with a fever, my mother refused to let me out of the house. The black and yellow pirate costume she’d spent the past weeks making hung in the closet dejectedly.  My sister was forced to split her candy with me but I was in no shape to eat it.  Ravenous when my fever broke, I devoured the “eggy and toast” Mom made.  Perfectly soft-boiled eggs mingled with bits of broken up toast and mixed together. The toast was neither too crisp nor too mushy.  Globs of half-melted butter slid throughout the mixture along with a little salt.  Eating it I felt strangely happy.

 

At 27 I moved in with my grandmother.  I would like to say it was because she lost her sight and needed me but it was also because I wanted some freedom, having lived with my parents my entire life.  She lived alone in a second floor apartment in a sketchy section of southwest Philadelphia.  Her sight deteriorated at the same rate her fear escalated.  “They are not going to experiment on me,” she’d say emphatically when I suggested she have the cataracts removed.  Consoling herself she’d add, “At least I still can see some things.”

Because the television didn’t work, I’d read to her after dinner.   Short stories and poetry were her favorites. One evening after reading “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” I explained to her how symbolism is used in writing.  After mulling the purpose of symbolism, she responded, “I prefer to keep my cookies on a lower shelf.”

She loved “Breakfast,” which was really an excerpt from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Anything that had to do with the simple things in life, or people being compassionate to each other, appealed to her.  “Kindness,” she would say, “is the most important thing in life.”

For our own breakfast we’d have toast.  Mine would be with coffee and hers with tea.  “I can tell you spread the Oleo to the very edges of the toast.  I like that.”

On my birthday, she’d put out a white linen hand towel that had, “Maid’s Day Off,“ embroidered on it.  She would change the toilet paper when it was close to the end so I didn’t have to.  When she knew it to time for me to come home from school, she would feel her way down the steps and unlock the door so I wouldn’t have to wrestle with it.  Sometimes I’d find her sitting halfway up the steps because it was just too much to turn around and climb back up.

Sometimes I would get lost in the memories of time together.  When I was younger we used to walk through Mount Moriah, the nearby cemetery that held Betsy Ross’ remains.  That was until they were relocated so visitors to Philadelphia during the bicentennial wouldn’t have to travel through such a shady neighborhood.  We’d put flowers on graves of children who had died that had nothing more than “Tommy” and “Billy” etched into the stone.  Names and the dates indicating they were children.

I remember things she taught me:  how to throw a ball, how to crochet a chain stitch, and how a pebble tossed into the pond would create endless ripples.

 

When Cathy and I first got together, it was obvious she was the cook.  Even to this day there are only about 20 meals I can make.  Blueberry and cream cheese stuffed French toast is one of them.    On our first Valentine’s Day, I made it for breakfast.  It took me a good deal of time and the kitchen looked like a hazmat scene but it was scrumptious.  I watched as she sopped up every sticky bit of the homemade blueberry compote and washed it down with a mimosa.

 

Two years ago, when Dad was dying of end stages C.O.P.D., I’d spend Wednesday nights at my parents’ house.  Mom, Dad and I would watch Criminal Minds and try to figure out who the “unsub” was.  Dad’s hospital bed was situated in the living room.  I stayed on the sofa bed and got up often to make sure he hadn’t pulled his oxygen tubes out of his nose.  On Thursday mornings I’d get up at 4:30 while it was still dark out and have toast and coffee with him before making the two-hour trek to work.  In the beginning I would try to creep through the living room so as not to wake him.  Dad, in turn, would rattle the trapeze chain above the hospital bed.  I’d whisper, “Dad, you up?”

“Yuh, huh,” would come the reply. After transferring him to the wheelchair, we’d sit at the kitchen table.  Usually we’d toast dense twelve-grain bread then smear it with Country Crock and grape jelly.  Dad would fold the toast in two and the jelly would squeeze out the bottom and glop down on the table or sometimes his T-shirt. Time with dad was precious and I was fortunate to get some one-on-one time with him.  I don‘t really remember the conversation we shared.  I always felt so full when I left on those mornings.

 

I sit here eating toast as I write this.

 

 

 

 

How to be a writer – April 6, 2012

If you ever wish to have peace in life, do not do this.  This experiment is for fools, it is a lark and best dismissed as a symptom or possibly the result of a midlife crisis.

Specifically, don’t follow your dream to be a writer.

First, be honest with yourself.  It isn’t really your dream.  Understand that, being childless, you are trying to leave something that lasts.  They say to do something of importance, in the magnitude of greatness, you have three choices:  have a child, write a book, plant a tree.  How hard could it be to write a book?  At least if you fail, nothing will die on you.

Write about what you know.  Cats, teaching, family, life philosophy.  Write every little detail.  The cats were a Bengal/Savannah mix and they were embraced in their adopted home on December 27th of a very mild and disappointing winter.

Consider doing a study of something, then bag it.  If you chose to work for a summer at the Hopkins’ Dairy Farm, that experience would make for great writing.  No, cross that off the list.  It would take your whole summer and would be too many hours and you would smell like manure all the time.  You wouldn’t be able to wash the stink out of your hair.  People would see you at parties and as you approached would get a whiff of you and give you that face of stone that shows they are trying not to react to your stench.  When they release themselves from the Bell’s palsy grip, they make inappropriate expressions just to exercise their facial muscles to prove they didn’t freeze them on purpose.  “Really?” They’ll say with far too much surprise in their voices.  “You began drum lessons on Tuesday, hmmmm….” They’ll ponder biting their lower lips wondering how you could manage such an undertaking on a Tuesday and even more, how they will get out of the conversation politely.

Consider writing about something you already do.  Choose something mundane.  Cleaning toilets.  You have plenty of amusing thoughts you could plop right in your writing.  I deal with more shit teaching than I do cleaning toilets, you tell your coworkers on returning to school in September.  That’s some clever stuff.

Turn every experience into symbolism.  View every experience as some kind of metaphor for something greater in life.  That bug you are debating mopping over or moving out of the way, it could be your dying father.  It can’t help itself, shouldn’t someone in a better position help it?  Make these events existential.  If you free a bug from a spider web, were you being a champion among humanitarians or messing up the cycle of life? You freed the bug but fucked with the spider.  What about the Protestant work ethic?  That spider worked for that bug.  That bug was stupid to wander into the web.  What if the bug still has remnants on its little feet and will live a life compromised of quality and will stick to everything and never find a mate and possibly die a worse death than had the vampire spider sucked it dead?  What would Jesus do?  What would Darwin say?

Make New Year’s Resolutions that will force you to develop your writing.  Promise yourself you will write each night for at least 30 minutes.  No matter what, make time for it.  Tell yourself you are worth this time for reflection, to develop a talent, to indulge your creative side.

Start a blog with Word Press.  This will keep you on track and committed.  Don’t tell many people you know about the blog, as that will cripple your writing.  How can you complain about these people when you are inviting them to read your writing?  Celebrate the beauty of anonymous blogging.  It’s like you are invisible in a room and can observe and make comments but no one knows who or where you are.  First double check to make sure you are, indeed, not linked in any way to the blog.

Do your research.  Read the hundreds of thousands of other writers’ blogs and try not to feel inadequate.  Discover how they have so many followers.  How does Kelly Parker have over 7,000 followers?  Why does she continue to “like” your posts but never signs up as a follower?  Ask yourself if it’s a trick to get you to follow her blog.  Wonder if she even reads your posts.  Write one daring her to follow you.  Mutter, “Touché,” when she “likes” this post and still refuses to follow.

Solicit at least one of your literate friends to follow your blog and comment.  Sign up to follow hers.  Write comments that you tell yourself are insightful.  Continue to jerk each other off daily with comments like, “Favorite part…blah, blah, blah.   I can so picture the…    Loved, loved, LOVED the description of the waxy, papery…blah, blah, fucking blah.”

Try to imitate writing you admire.  Try to be true to your own voice at the same time.  Employ an avalanche of figurative language.

Convince yourself you are not a failure.  Especially if after 3 months you only have two followers and one is your friend.  Convince yourself that people have just not seen your blog.  Congratulate yourself for not stooping to the parlor tricks of others and “liked” unread and/or random posts of others just to guilt them into following you.  Do not allow yourself to wonder if you have disappointed your other follower, Geoff, who hails from London.

Do not give up.

Take a creative writing class.  Do not be intimidated.  Do not show up drunk like you did for swim lessons at twenty-three.  Do not beat yourself up for missing the second class after vowing not to miss any.  Try not to feel like an opportunist when you find yourself jotting notes into your Iphone as you sit by a dying man’s bedside.

Tell yourself that this will pay off.  Patiently explain that this is allowing you to live every moment to the fullest.  To actually experience life instead of rushing through it preoccupied.  Understand you are now a conscientious observer.  You notice things.  You are aware of your surroundings.  Because you are searching for words to describe these moments you are alive.  Accept that the process is as important as the end result.  Maybe more so.  Appreciate this.

Wrestle with the idea that you may never be published.  Ask yourself why you write.  Is it to be published?  Rich?  Famous?  Do you seek the accolades from others?  Do want to be seen as talented and wise?  Funny?  Is it that you simply seek a connection?  You hope that you will have a reader(ship) that say to themselves, “I get that.  I have been there.”  In turn you will not feel so alone, so isolated.  You will have shared an experience, a moment.

Destroy the delusion that you are an island and no one is like you.  Everyone is like you on any given day.

Understand that when your loved ones comment with, “Great voice,” what they are really saying is that you lack substance and organization and purpose but your bitterness is still evident and that maybe you really should talk to someone.

Envision your success.  You will be accepted into that unique, eccentric community you call writers and will make enough money to sit in the park, or at North Shores Beach or at Starbucks, documenting your important thoughts for all posterity with a five dollar mocha chino in your hand as a symbol your success.

Prepare yourself to be recognized on the streets and at local events like the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival and Camp Rehoboth’s Women’s Weekend.  Be humble when they ask you to teach a class or be a keynote speaker or even do an evening of stand up.  When you accept, be gracious and flattered and insist on doing it pro bono as it is for a good cause and really, you’re not that good.  Allow yourself to silently acquiesce as you redden when they insist you are.

Remind yourself that you can always plant a tree.