Category Archives: writing

Under the Influence

Long, long ago, in a young adulthood far, far away, an aspiring writer read a short story in the Boston Globe Magazine. She can’t recall what is was about — probably it involved a young woman, but a line struck her and has stayed with her to this day: “We spend all our lives remembering the most basic things.”

I can’t tell you how many life lessons I’ve learned, often quite smugly I might add, only to get gobsmacked by the same problem a few years later. If I’m lucky, I remember what I did before and soldier on through; sometimes I don’t and need a second gobsmacking. I don’t recommend this.

I have several writer friends, and we check in with each other as a way to keep ourselves on track. It’s like having an exercise buddy, but way less sweaty. They will often tell me they were only able to write a little, but were reading a lot. They’ll tell me some quotes from writers that encouraged them or made them think or made them ask why? All good tendencies in a writer.

And I thought, huh. I used to do that. When did I stop doing that? Oh, yeah, when I had a husband, a kid, and a mother-in-law in assisted living. Right. Sure, now I have older parents, but I am no longer the first responder, and we have help. I still have the kid and he is away at school. And while he still needs support, I don’t have to go to back to school nights, or parent-teacher conferences, or god help us, math night. Can’t the math people go to math night and I’ll go to word night? I don’t even care what type of words they are — fiction, rap, poetry, monologues. OK, so maybe I haven’t quite let go of that stuff. Maybe I should read up on that. But what about writing?

When I thought of what I could read to be inspired, I was like, meh. I can barely keep up with my book group and romance novels. Reading about writing seems like a lot of work.

That aspiring writer from long ago is seriously rolling her eyes at me.

I actually didn’t have to go that far. If I had bothered to read my own “About” page, I would see: “I aspire to be the love child of Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris. But I also have a serious bent that sneaks in between the laughs.” I should also add:  And I have memory gaps you can drive a truck through. But that’s not how I remembered how much I love, love, love David Sedaris. It was my friend Mike inviting me to hear David read in Boston recently. I have only heard him on the radio in snippets and never seen him in person. His essays make me laugh so hard, once when I was listening to him in the car, I almost drove off the road. He’d like that, I think. I have 4 of his books, and now I remember I got another for a gift that I didn’t like. So I think it was like, OK, that’s done.

But hearing pieces from his new book made me laugh out loud and my writing heart soar. He is about my age and tackling similar life things like midlife and aging parents in his irreverent, sarcastic, and sneakily self-effacing way. Yes, that’s how it’s done! He spares no one from his witty judging, especially himself. How could this love child get so lost on her own path? I could blame Cheeto flea, but really it’s more like my own smugness. Look! I write a blog! Every week! I don’t have writer’s block — I planned to have those cute hamster pictures in my editorial calendar. I have made it my friends. I don’t need writing advice. I am a writer. See my blog?

Somewhere along the way I went from being an insecure young writer to an overconfident older writer. Neither one is a good look, and everyone can use a role model. Especially one who writes like this: In the essay, “Jesus Shaves,” from the book Me Talk Pretty One Day, published in 2000, he writes about a French class he is taking in Paris with people from many other countries, and the students must explain Easter in their broken French:

”The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for a little boy of God who calls his self Jesus and …oh shit.” She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

‘He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two  … morsels of … lumber.’

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’

‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here to say hello to the peoples.’

‘He nice, the Jesus.’

‘He make the good things, and on Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.’

Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as ‘to give of yourself your only begotten son.’ Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.” 

David goes on to describe how he says the rabbit of Easter brings the chocolate, but the teacher tells him in France that chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.

“[The Easter bunny is] someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It’s like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they’ve got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That’s the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there is no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell’s dog — and even then he’d need papers. It just didn’t add up.”

As soon as I got home from hearing David, I ordered his new book, Calypso, and one he published a few years ago, Theft by Finding. It’s like I discovered my favorite show just added two new seasons on Netflix. I can’t wait to binge. And this time, I’m not going to forget this most basic thing: I am the love child of Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris and I’m going to make them proud.

 

 

Beware the Webinar

Just a quick one this week. Was your week crazy too? Did the Super Duper Full Worm Moon have anything to do with it, do you think?

So in the grab bag of life, I received this email at work. The last blogworthy one I got had more corporate gobblegook than an HR policy 150 page PDF.

In this one I was cordially invited to a seminar on engaging employees. I do internal communications for doctors, so the invitation itself was not so unusual. It caught my eye, and not in a good way.

“Hi Sandy,

With your role in communications, I thought you’d find value in the highly-requested replay of a webinar we hosted with the CMO/CCO of Booz Allen Hamilton, Grant McLaughlin, on connecting and engaging dispersed employees.”

Um. “Booz Allen Hamilton”? It sounds like a name Saturday Night Live would make up for a skit. Booz? I work at a respected academic medical center, and I would be embarrassed to even say that to my boss. I’m not a complete Pollyanna. I mean maybe of you’re a music promoter, or a “lifestyle” guru, or someone who actually sells alcohol for a living. Then it might be kind of funny. I’m a Word Girl, names of shit matter. But Booz, and I’m supposed to take you seriously?

So then I must apologize to the younger set. I next thought, “Ooooh. This must be one of those young, happening, slim suit, bearded, buzzed side cut, overly gelled hair swoop on the top guys. Maybe with tats.” You know, this guy:

hipdude

I know, I’m being youngist. Apologies. I clicked on Booz’s CMO/CCO-kookookatcho Mr. Grant Hamilton’s link. Yeah, no. He’s one of my generation. Ugh. Now I’m even sorrier and can’t unsee it.

Grant McLaughlin

Now I’m into it like a dog with a bone. As if Guy Smiley here wasn’t bad enough, I decided to find out who the other esteemed speaker is, the “Communication Expert,” capitalized because, you know, that’s a Very Important Improper Noun. Here’s Becky Graebe.  You ready? Here she is…

Boozblogpic2

Is she even real? She looks like a Barbie doll. Becky? Are you in there? Does she blink? And what’s with the hanging light bulbs? If you look fast, it’s like a starry ballroom or something, with our slightly vacant-eyes “Expert” floating around.

As is fitting punishment for making fun of my fellow human beings, now I was just totally creeped out.

These people are out there. Giving webinars, seminars, and doing who knows what other “educational” things to unsuspecting, hardworking communications people.

All I can say is, stay sharp and watch your back. Booz and Becky are coming.

 

 

As

Nod to Elton John: This Blog Has No Title

I’ve been sitting here trying to find a pithy title to this blog. And then Elton John’s song popped in my head:  This Song Has No Title.   When I say popped, I mean up from the recesses of my adolescent brain. I haven’t thought about this song in years, but the album it’s on, Yellow Brick Road, is part of the soundtrack of my youth — it was etched into me before I understood music could do that. It was my sister’s album, and she listened to it a lot. And I loved the double album artwork, so I as I gazed at it and read the lyrics, I listened to it when she wasn’t there. As I listened to the song just now, after at least 40 years, I air pianoed in all the right places. It seems relevant still:

“And each day I learn just a little bit more
I don’t know why but I do know what for
If we’re all going somewhere let’s get there soon
Oh this song’s got no title just words and a tune”

I’m stalling. I’ve been taking a class called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action,” and just so there is no misunderstanding, we’re against racism and are looking at our white privilege. The way it’s worded and in today’s Cheeto flea world, I want to confirm that it doesn’t mean we are challenging the legitimacy of racism. So all you MAGA people, move up or move on back. Preferably get a clue, but that’s probably not gonna happen. And Black folks, we’re trying to work out our white junk so we can be better allies to you and make sure our baggage fits in the overhead compartment.

And I want to talk about it, but it’s messing with my head, making me look for words, which for a writer is like being a carpenter without wood. I’m angry, sad, puzzled, tired, exposed, struggling. Where the hell is the wood?

I’m a good white person. I need you to know that, and that’s part of the problem, see? This isn’t about good white person = non-racist. I can be a good person and still have racist ideas and thoughts and assumptions. And I’m squirming and struggling against the idea like one of Pepe Le Pew’s victims. I had the great fortune of having a best friend in college who let me into her Black world. I am an empathetic person by nature. I got it, I believed it when she told me how life was for her being Black. We analyzed when she was a new lawyer at a big Boston firm. Was the interaction because she Black? a woman? Low lawyer on the ladder?

I grew up working class, from immigrants. First generation on one side, 2nd on the other. College was a goal, not a given. I worked all during college, two of those years about 30 hours a week. I graduated with tons of loans, worked in nonprofits — a professional who was not out to make money, but a difference. I did not own property until I was 37. It was in an affordable, but less desirable Boston-area town. My then husband and I didn’t have parents who could give us a down payment, so we took the money out from our 403Bs.

I know white privilege exists on a systemic level. I can’t have listened to a Black person’s experience and doubted it. Ah, so comfy, from my “less privileged” place. I didn’t have money or social standing. I’m good, I’m cool, right? I’m not like those clueless rich white people. Am I?

I defer to my alter ego Blanche, because she likes to laugh at me when I’m being stupid. She sits at the bar drinking gin and taking long contemplative drags on her ciggies.

Blanchesmoking

Poor, Blanche. She just fell off her stool, she’s laughing so hard. Luckily, she’s a tough bird. She’ll be OK. Plus, she likes laughing at me, so she wants nothing better than to get on that stool and in position for my next misstep.

Blanche says, “You’re white, girlie. Hide behind your ‘working class, immigrant’ shield all you want. The fact is, no one has followed your sorry ass in a store, even when you had no money to spend. No one ever thought at work that you were only there because of affirmative action. Once they meet you, your coffee slurping may annoy them, but that’s just being a bad office mate. You uncomfortable? That’s sounds about right.”

Blanch takes a long drag on her ciggie and looks me in the eye as she stubs it out, “You ain’t perfect, babe, let it ride. I’ll stop laughing when you talk sense.” She downs her shot and slams it on the bar. “Or not,” her smokey, throaty laugh echoes in stale air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Quite Vivid

I’m all about making things fun and easy, but I amaze even myself sometimes. If you are a regular reader, you may know I’m struggling with how to wrap my arms around getting more involved in social justice and learning more about racism and white privilege. You know just small, little things like that to help beat back the Cheeto flea and his turd minions.

Part of the problem is that I think I may have used up most of my intellectual curiosity and prowess in my 20s and 30s, what with my subscriptions to Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s (no, not Harper’s Bazaar, the smarty pants Harper’s). Then family duties called. Lapsed subscriptions were replaced with other reading. While I firmly believe that reading to your children gives them an excellent foundation for being a functioning adult with critical thinking skills, there is also a small part of me that also believes reading the Berenstain Bears 100 times over the course of several years causes permanent damage to a functioning adult’s critical thinking skills. You do your best to pick only the books you can stand to read that many times, but inevitably, the Berenstain Bears book and its kin come into your life, and like the dog who goes right for the person who dislikes dogs, your kid will pick the crap book every time.

So where was I? Right, fun and easy. So the related other part of the problem is that when I try to decide, should I read a depressing book about how messed up institutional racism is? Or the book for my book group, which is non-fiction and usually not quite as depressing as racism, but still serious and requires concentration? Or that trashy historical romance novel I just downloaded for free on Hoopla?

Guess who wins? I know. I’m the worst. Blame the Berenstain Bears.

But I’m nothing, if not wily and persistent. I had read the last historical novel by the white writer I liked and when I tried several new ones, based on Hoopla suggestions, I couldn’t get through them. I may read historical romance novels, but I do have some standards. The heaving bosoms need to belong to a strong female character and need to be part of an interesting historical plot that is based on truth. I went through many lists of writers, and one of the suggestions included a Black historical romance writer, Beverly Jenkins.

Well, hey now. Could I get a two-fer out of this? I need to learn more Black history anyway, and the book I’m currently reading Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is quite educational, and I’ve been stuck on page 36 for a while now. I know, I know, I’m the absolute worst. But I have a mission to fulfill, so I downloaded a book called Vivid. Vivid is a female physician of color who travels from California to a Black community in Grayson Cove, Michigan; they need a doctor and no one else will hire her in 1876. They also only hire her because they think she’s a man–she uses the “no first names” trick.

(As a side note, I just saw “On the Basis of Sex,” the movie about the early career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who nearly 100 years later after Vivid, made it into Harvard Law School and was top of her class, only to also not get hired. So, you know, there’s that. But the movie is good, so go see it, my fellow snowflakes!)

Vivid is well-written, entertaining, and not only chock full of historical details of Black people in the 1876,  Beverly also lists pages of resource material at the end of the book. Paydirt! There really were Black women doctors in the 1800s, and there were all-Black communities being established in the U.S. Sadly for my gay friends, they are no gay characters in these books, but if I find any good gay historical romances, I’ll let you know. Most of Beverly’s books I’ve read take place in all-Black communities, or in cities like Philadelphia because, as she notes in the end of one of the books, it played an important role in the Black race’s history. I’ve read about the 1800s and the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal church, middle class households, ranching out west, poets and writers, and more. In other words, I’ve read about human beings being human and their specific struggles because of their color.

One of my favorites, Midnight, is set in Boston on the verge of the Revolutionary War. In it the main free male character talks about being captured by the British navy and being forced into naval service–it’s called impressment and was legal in Britain at the time. And you know those Brits–they like to carry their rules around with them to other countries, whether the other countries agree or not. Not long after reading about it, I was able to tear myself away from fascinating Beverly to my read book group book, Heirs of the Founders, by H.W. Brands, about the second generation of American politicians. An early chapter describes how in 1812 two elder statesman, Henry Clay and John Calhoun, were trying to persuade their congressional colleagues and President Madison to wage war against Britain in response to many transgressions against American sovereignty, including, you guessed it, impressment.

So, I rest my case. And I know I can’t be satisfied with just Beverly and her meticulously research novels and heaving bosoms, sigh. I’ve got more reading to do, and I also signed up for class in January called, “White People Challenging Racism.” But for the moment, I need to find out what is going to happen in the next installment of the Grayson Cove, Michigan town. Seems were going to learn more about Dr. Vivid’s brother-in-law, Eli.

And, thank you Beverly, for your wonderful books. Here is a brief bio from Wikipedia: “Beverly Jenkins (born 1951, Detroit) is an American author of historical and contemporary romance novels with a particular focus on 19th century African-American life.[1] Jenkins was a 2013 NAACP Image Award nominee and, in 1999, was voted one of the Top 50 Favorite African-American writers of the 20th century by the African American Literature Book Club.[2] Jenkins’s historical romances are set during a period of African-American history that she believes is often overlooked. This made it difficult to break into publishing because publishers weren’t sure what to do with stories that involved African-Americans but not slavery.[3]

150430_blog-photo_bev-jenkins

 

Of Kavanaugh and Colonoscopies

If you haven’t had a colonoscopy yet, you may want to skip this week’s blog. The thing about being middle-aged is that you get this glorious perspective on life and new-found confidence and you give way less fucks about a lot of things. And just when you’re really sailing along, the medical establishment sneaks up behind you and throws a colonoscopy net over your happiness and says, ah ha! Got you! This junk makes wish for your mammogram, and that isn’t any fun either.

So, this week I was getting it from all sides, it started with the colonoscopy and ended with a colonoscopy, aka Krybaby Kavanaugh. So what’s a blogger to do? Go back to her English Comp 101 roots and do a compare and contrast, with a side of metaphor and simile.

Kavanaugh is like a colonoscopy.

  • You follow the preparation rules, like a liquid-only diet for a day and calling your senators every 10 minutes to say “hell no!” But it doesn’t actually make the colonoscopy any better, nor does it seem to send Krybaby back to the sewage pipe he crawled out of.
  • Following the prep gives you a headache. Actually the colonoscopy headache from no solid food only lasted 36 hours. I still have a headache from Krybaby.
  • Even really good drugs can’t save you. Yes, during the procedure I was in that white haze of sedation, but oh, yeah, I still felt a few points of pain, which interrupted my haze.  With Krybaby, it’s the opposite. I’m mostly in pain from his existence, with only a few points of white wine haze of sedation.
  • The end of the screening/hearing really isn’t the end of the ordeal, and all told, you’ve pretty much lost a whole week. For a colonoscopy, there was 2 days of prepping to endure, a day of the procedure, a day after where I was still fuzzy and only partially productive, and the day after that I still wasn’t feeling quite right. For Krybaby, there were days of hype to endure before the hearing, the day of the hearing, and in the days after the hearing, I was fuzzy and unfocused, and days later I’m still not feeling quite right.

Krybaby Kavanaugh is a colonoscopy.

I don’t really have to explain that except to add that he isn’t even good enough to be associated with my fecal matter. I’m really hoping the FBI will be like my doctor’s little Mars rover-like scope that has a light and little clippers to cut out polyps and what have you. Please FBI, snip, snip, snip this cancerous polyp from our system, and flush him down the sewer.

Photo credit: BBC News

 

Random Photo Round Up

As I go about my life, I often come upon random things that make me pause or laugh or think it would make a good blog. And then weeks later when I’m looking for the alleged good blog idea, I realize it’s a one-second gag that even my superior BS skills can’t spin into something more substantial. But that’s OK — these are short and to the point. No sustained attention needed! And let’s face it, this week the bubble got pummeled more than usual. Enjoy!

  1. We fished this out of a small stream on our canoe camping trip on the Delaware River. We were walking and saw something clearly man-made. My friend said “I see boobs!” And I saw a high-heeled shoe. This could be interesting, I thought. He had to wade into the river to free her from the rock she had been pinned under, and then we were like…whoa. I flashed back to curse Tiki statue from the Brady Bunch and every other bad TV show about weird cursed objects that lay in wait for some poor saps to fish them out and then they wreak havoc on them. This one also had a high school tassel from 2014 attached to it, so now I was adding a bad teen horror movie to the mix. Or, maybe she was just a wise old woman with eclectic fashion taste. Sure, we laughed, but nether of us wanted to take her with us, so we told her we liberated her from the water and gave her a better view from a tree. Please don’t come get us.

scarywitch

2. The second entry in the “Yikes, what the hell?!?” category is this guy or gal. I was writing at my computer, which looks out a second story window. As I was staring out the window, you know working very hard thinking about what I wanted to write (you can’t prove I wasn’t), I happened to notice a beautiful spider’s web. I congratulated myself on being present to the world’s beauty and thinking about the miracle of life, and how amazing spiders are, until she/he suddenly scuttled into view, and I screamed. That sucker is 2 inches long, front leg to back leg. Gaaahhhhh! Why does the miracle of life have to be so creepy and scary??

giantspider

3.  And now for something completely petty. I’ve done this round up before, and I almost always have a fashion photo. Or what shouldn’t be fashion. My only defense is that I’m pretty clueless about fashion, so if I notice what you’re wearing seems off, you are either too cutting edge to live in Boston, or it’s really, truly bad.  However, this little number took me in a whole philosophical direction while waiting at the crosswalk. Exhibit A:

My first thought was, I see fishnets, did you forget those when you were changing out of your dominatrix outfit this morning? Or has the stereotypical sexy fishnet costume, like much fashion these days, de-evolved into too much casual comfort? Or does she have black lace and leather under that frumpy outfit? And because the walk sign still hadn’t come on at this point, I thought, or am I the weirdo for thinking you can only wear fishnets as an accessory to a sexy scenario. Who am I to say that fishnet stockings don’t go with sensible work attire. I mean, you know, the zebra flats are kinda working. Maybe this is her way of saying who she is from the safety of being tucked under her desk. Who am I to judge? Well, I really tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but as the walk sign came on, I had to accept I’m just too old-fashioned; fishnets should always be in the presence of a whip, high heels, and an outfit containing no more than a cup of fabric.

4 & 5. To make up for my shallow, one-track mind, here are photos from a cool outdoors exhibit called Fog x FLO, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. It’s by a well-known Japanese artist, Fujiko Nakaya. There 6 spread out along the Emerald Necklace Parks in Boston. I’ve seen 2 so far. They are really cool. Nozzles on scaffolding spray fog into a natural area. These two are from Jamaica Pond. Light gray version of the Smoke Monster in Lost, anyone?

smokemonster

Then it envelopes you…

fog

I saw the second one last week at Franklin Park. It’s set up in the Overlook Shelter Ruins, and the fog moving over the stone is very ethereal and peaceful, even though there were two ladies chatting away the whole time. The fog in this one appears more frequently than the one on the pond, so I saw it multiple times in about 20 minutes. The pond one only goes off on the hour and half hour, just for a few minutes. And sorry for the video. I can’t really say what I did towards the end, um, fancy camera work? But you get the general idea.

And here is more info about the ruins: “Sitting lonely and overgrown in Boston’s historic Franklin Park, these puddingstone ruins were once one of the only buildings ever designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, whose egalitarian ideals set the standard for public parks as a place equally accessible to anyone and protected from private interests.”

6. And because my stats always go through the roof when I post pictures of animals (and really it seems like any animal — you people are indiscriminate on this topic!) Here is something to humble anyone who does yoga and who may be getting to attached to comparing themselves favorably against others in the class. So, you can do badass down dog pose? Can you do down squirrel pose, upside down, on the side of a tree? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Namaste!

downsquirrel

 

Don’t Fall Asleep in the Snowdrift

This is a really bad time to be a person who tries to find humor in everyday life and write about it. It’s also a bad time to be a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, or  basically anyone who is not in agreement with the Cheeto flea and his minions. Or maybe he is their minion. It’s hard to tell — this shit gets confusing.

The current crisis of the immigrant children warehoused like, well, let’s just say it — the prelude to Jews and gays and other non-Aryan people sent to the Nazi death camps, is wrong on every single level. It scares the hell out of me. It exhausts me with pain and anguish. I can’t imagine what these families are being put through. And it also pisses me the hell off.

Hey, Cheeto asshole, you know what you get when you treat children like worthless animals? The ones who survive learn to hate, and they find acceptance in groups like ISIS and other religious extremists. And then they find ways to hurt the people and the country who made them. This is so basic, I get paralyzed thinking how Cheeto and the minions cannot know this. And by the way the Bible is not a tool for making policy, but if you want to quote shit, how about this? “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.” And the kids will come back and give you back 10-fold what you gave them.

I want to go numb. This new, next level of WTF-ness  is so relentless, and seems to be getting worse.

So, I have very little humor for you, but rather, I hope I can give you inspiration. I receive email once a week about practical things to do, put together by Jen Hofmann called Americans of Conscience Checklist. You can sign up for it here. 

In this week’s email she talks about being overwhelmed by this whole putting kids in cells thing, and included an inspiring article about why we can’t go numb now. The writer Dahlia Lithwick writes, “And this is the scene in the movie where even though you want to fall asleep in the snowdrift, you need to get up and walk around. … Because “going numb” is the gateway drug to acceptance.”

So hang in there. The article also calls for us to “Choose for yourself. Sure, tune out that which makes you feel hopeless. But hold onto what motivates you to act. Find all the humans you can find who agree with you and make calls and register voters.”

I’m focusing on social justice. I’m trying to do it in with honey, rather than vinegar. But maybe at this point, all that really matters is that you do something.

Photo credit: Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Association.