watch.listen.snack.

 

I’m having a bit of a hard go right now. How are you? I cannot tell you exactly how much time I spend cruising the Humane Society, Pixie Project, and other dog rescue websites, but it’s significant, it’s basically like sucking my thumb. I also self-soothe by lying on my floor pretending to do Pilates, drinking tea, scrolling through Instagram, and I’ve developed the habit of taking one tot of booze while I cook dinnertime snacks. Notice I did not say dinner. Reading, writing, and eating have morphed for me, so here are a few things to see you through: watch.listen.snack. (Forgive my rudimentary graphics! I’m flying by the seat of my pants.) read.write.eat will be back in a week!

 

watch:

Remember last week when I suggested War and Peace!  Ha ha. That was a joke on me! If you are doing it, I am so proud of you!

  • We’re having a silly old movie festival:  The Princess Bride, which we watched last night and it is still a joy! Next, my husband’s fav: Groundhog Day, which we will follow with Big.
  • We’ve also made a group movie date for Emma, which our cable company has made available. We’ve reached out to pals and plan to make popcorn (see below!) then all press play at the same time, and yes, we will text each other through the movie! I know, heresy!! Yet we will feel some togetherness.
  • If you don’t know about Better Things I am quite jealous because you have 3½ seasons of smart, funny, and real ahead of you.
  • If you’re limiting your news intake, which I recommend, you may want to follow Katie Couric on Instagram, as she has a solid and quick Covid-19 Update every day.
  • For art, please, please (especially if you have children at home, though not a requirement) follow WendyMac on Instagram as well. Click on her stories to get amazing art classes. I think she deserves a MacArthur Grant for this work she’s doing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listen:

Podcasts are your friends! Clean out closets, take a bath, trim your bangs (well maybe not). Whatever you need to do, put on a podcast, and take care of yourself while you listen.

Pumping-up your sagging spirits:

Art/Literature/Poetry:

Chitty-chatty:

  • Armchair Expert, I liked conversations with Malcolm Gladwell, Peggy Orenstein, Sanjay Gupta, and Ronan Farrow
  • Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, particularly the Al Franken episode.
  • Longform storytelling: check S-Town, it’ll captivate you.

And for music, we’ve got United We Swing, Best of Jazz at the Lincoln Center, on repeat. And, we’re enjoying Nick Drake as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snack:

A lot of salami happening at our house! My husband has been putting tiny morsels (to make it last) on top of cheese toast and setting it in the broiler for a few minutes. Salty, crunchy, fatty. It checks all the boxes and goes down quite will with that tot of booze I mentioned earlier.

  • If you must be pseudohealthy, try this from Smitten Kitchen: kale chips crushed over buttered and salted popcorn.
  • Happen to have a pantry full of nuts, this looks delicious!
  •  Wholeheartedly recommend these Spinach Balls with Honey-Mustard Sauce:
  • For something sweet and delicious, I’m loving Chocolate Panini! I know, it’s decadent and slightly weird. If you don’t have access to a grill, you can cook them in a cast iron fry pan. Check out Mark Bittman’s entire website for delicious food, but these panini are easy and satisfying and bring to mind the Italian film I loved when I was in high school, Bread & Chocolate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for today. Thank you for taking care of yourselves. Thank you for being extra kind to the people you see in the world (from 6 feet apart). There is nothing racist about this virus. Thank you: medical professionals, farmers, grocery store clerks, generous neighbors, sanitation workers and many other kind human beings. I’ll be in touch.

 

 

 

Workshop Guidelines as Relationship Advice

 

I overheard a student of mine mention that my workshop guidelines were very different than any she’d encountered before, in a good way. I got a little puffed up when I heard the comment. I’ve worked hard, read many books, and tried lots of strategies to come up with a workshop protocol that allows the writer to keep moving on her manuscript.  The last thing I ever want is to shut someone down. I imagine in my early days as a workshop attendee I did just that, pointing out faults and speaking with the unbearable pomposity of youth! I’m cringing right now and wish I knew to whom I owe an apology. I’m sorry…
My student went on to say that my workshop guidelines are actually good marital advice! Who knew? i certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I can see what she meant.

In an effort to contribute to good relationships and workshops, here’s what little I have!

 

Workshop Guidelines

The primary job of workshop is not only to help the writer recognize what may need attention in their pages, but also to describe, appreciate, analyze, and illuminate the pages as accurately, carefully and generously as possible. Reflecting back to the writer what the words on the page seem to say or want to be allows her to understand whether or not the work is conveying her intention. I am of the belief that we learn equally from what we do well and from our failed attempts. And yet, often we cannot tell which is which. Thus careful reading is not only for the writer’s benefit but for the benefit of the entire group. Ideally, the workshop should sharpen one’s ability to read, understand, and explicate any work, including your own.

Appreciate, illuminate, reflect back, be generous! We have to let our partners know that we see them, right? Pay Attention. 

The greatest problem with a fault finding workshop is that it’s discouraging! It reverses the writer’s momentum driving her back upon what has been written rather than forward toward continuing the work or toward development of her essential vision. Bitching and nagging are ultimately barren, in love and in criticism. Partners and manuscripts become hostile resentful, inhibited, fearful and depressed. They slam doors, pout and refuse to talk. Revision is a continuous, incessant, vital part of writing, it is the effort to see and to develop further what’s right about a piece, what is good and successful and engaging. Only finding fault is not necessarily supporting the writers vision.

Focusing on faults (though I get that it’s tempting…I’ve been married 30 years) is discouraging. And, criticism may prop you up for a second, as in feeling a bump of superiority when you’re the one who remembered to buy soap, send your mother-in-law a card, maintain your boundaries, but it won’t last and it won’t build anything. You want to support what you love about your partner, and hold yourself up to the spirit of revision as well.  

Read your colleague’s manuscript through twice. (I recognize that few of us will do this…it’s about hours in the day, but if you have time, please do. You will be amazed at what you notice and you will learn so much about writing.) The first time, do so with the intention of absorbing the story. Read slowly and carefully. The second time, read through with pencil in hand to make notations in the margins. underline or draw circles around what is working, what sparkles, is memorable, evocative, effective or fun, vivid, rich in sensory details, language that says the right thing in the right way. Explain in the margins why you liked what you’ve marked. Be celebratory and generous and true. Believe in the best of the story.

Celebrate what’s working. (Thank you for bringing me coffee in bed! Thanks for going to that obscure French film you probably would never choose on your own! Thanks for reminding me to laugh and let it go…) Give compliments. Be generous. Believe in the best in your partner. 

Put question marks in the margins where things aren’t going well, where you get lost, bored or confused, where the writing seems too shallow or oblique. Add a brief statement about what wasn’t working, why you were confused. These places that are sticky, stuck, or not working are often growth edges. It may be blurry but there may be good energy as well. Troubles are doorways. Ask questions in the margins.

Make your complaints brief and clear. Troubles are doorways to better understanding your partner, yourself, and your relationship.

Do not worry about grammar mishaps, misspellings, etc… This is rough draft material.

I know this one is abundantly clear! Is it worth it to complain about the way your partner slices the apple? Makes, or doesn’t make, the bed? Chews gum? You may not change them, ever. So you’ll have to learn to live with this rough draft material. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

It takes far greater maturity to notice the words that shimmer, far greater generosity and vulnerability to admit when you’ve been touched. When reading someone’s work: REVEAL rather than revile. ILLUMINATE rather than deride and dismiss.

Let your partner know when they shimmer. Reveal what upsets you, discuss, listen to what upsets them. Be curious not cursory.

Finally, what are some questions or concerns you have at this point?  Based on a question or concern, offer one suggestion for revision. Give your comments to the writer.

Don’t overwhelm your partner with suggestions for revision! Maybe ask of them one thing that you’d like to be different.

Workshop Protocol

  • Select a time keeper
  • Writer reads a short passage from their story/essay
  • Writer remains silent
  • Responders discuss the work, beginning with a description
  • We begin with positive comments. Let them run dry
  • Shift to questions about the work. Of course positive comments will continue to come forth as we discuss what is and is not working.
  • Understand that as we continue to talk about the work, our own opinions may shift, grow and change. That is the alchemy of worshop.
  • Ask the writer if they want ideas in the vein of “Maybe this will work…”
  • After an allotted time, the timekeeper gives the 5 minute warning and writer gets to redirect discussion if s/he has a pressing question about their work

P.S.  Notes to Self During WorkshopOr argument w/partner

  • Strive for a personal balance between listening & talking. (Quiet people, this is your chance to shine. Surprise us with your wisdom and insight. Talkers, this is your chance to listen.)
  • Respond to one another.
  • Show compassion to one another.
  • Be helpfully critical.

 

Portland Book Festival

 

In 2002, when my family moved from Santa Cruz to Portland, one of my very first acts as a citizen was to buy a subscription to Portland Arts and Lectures—world class authors speaking to capacity audiences in a beautiful concert hall? I’m in! Arriving downtown for the first lecture, my husband and I were pleased and shocked by the hullaballoo. There were people with lighted wands directing cars to parking garages. This traffic situation was not for the Rolling Stones, but for a writer. Man. My heart warmed. I knew this city and I were a good fit.

Last Saturday I spent the day at the Portland Book Festival in which the Schnitzer concert hall and nine additional stages, plus the Portland Art Museum were filled with 100+ amazing writers, booksellers, and readers for an entire day. Thousands of attendees buy books, become inspired, support writers and join in the city’s thriving literary community. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Here are the events I attended:

I was lucky to hear Ambassador Susan Rice speak in support of her book, TOUGH LOVE. At this time in history we’re all so hungry for heroes and, reality check: we can’t depend upon finding them in our current leaders, so we seek them in our writers. Ambassador Susan Rice is all three: leader, hero, writer.

In her conversation with Dave Miller, she talked about her parent’s contentious marriage, her father’s strengths and philosophy. He told her, “Bigotry is a function of someone else’s insanity.” And he pushed her to never ask for permission or affirmation. Believe in herself, she was taught.

Speaking about today’s political climate, no surprise that Ambassador Rice views climate change as the top national security threat. She spoke confidently that if the current administration prevails in the next election, damage wrought by them, on the climate, on the middle class and poor, on immigrants and health care, may not be able to be turned around. But if democrats win the election we can undo some of the damage starting by rejoining the Paris Agreement.

 

Tim O’Brien was next up on my dance ticket. He spoke about his new book, DAD’S MAYBE BOOK. O’Brien came to fatherhood late, having his first son at 56, and he spoke about the particular vulnerability of being an older father. He spoke of his sons as being “pains in the ass, and needles in the heart.” His sons brought “joy to a man who felt he had no joy left,” a man who self-identifies as having the heart of a crocodile. That was a heartbreaking thing to hear, especially knowing that the particular sweet joy of children in the house flows and ebbs.

O’Brien was incredibly candid and tender, tearing up a few times, as was I. He spoke about his wife, giving him a “kid ultimatum.” He tried cornering her, asking her if she loved what didn’t exist, the possibility of a child, more than she loved him. And she said, yes, absolutely. It was so curious. Don’t we all love what doesn’t exist? Isn’t that the very definition of yearning?

Finally he spent time talking about the concept of MAYBE. Since serving in the Viet Nam war, life has forever been a maybe. Maybe I will step on a landmine today. Maybe my best friend will take the hit. We’re all living maybe lives. Maybe, according to O’Brien, is not evil, it is not immoral. “Maybe.” “I think.” “Possibly.” They’re all excellent words. Not being certain is a gift, because uncertainty keeps us open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we may have something to learn. The current administration, said O’Brien, suffers from a dearth of maybe.

 

The last event of my day, a panel on family and history and trauma and breaking free, Ties that Bind. Damn! Isn’t that relevant to…ummm….everyone? Inherited trauma leaves little and large road blocks in all our DNA.  The panelists were the funny and wonderful Elizabeth McCracken, the exuberant Daniel Jose Older, and Karl Marlantes.

The thing that interested me most was when the discussion veered toward ghosts. Particularly how different cultures treat their ghosts. Older spoke of the disrespect and eradication of ghosts in the US, while in other cultures, namely his Cuban heritage, ghosts are leaned upon. ” Put out some food and ask for help,” he suggested. McCracken took up the conversation, noting that our ghosts are often disenfranchised from self and story. For example a ghost is simply “the ghost of a little girl,” not a particular little girl. It got me thinking about ancestors and dreams and how we might find guidance in this rough and tumble world. I know I could use some. I’d love to go through life feeling my grandmother, who died 27 years ago, has my back. And, what of the long line of ancestors about whom I know nothing? Maybe they have my back too. Maybe.

I always tell my writing students the quirks and idiosyncratic behaviors are the juice, the jam, of our characters. Those details make our people real. McCracken (whose work and humor I LOVE) says that quirks are the manifestations of trauma. Imagine, so many of us hang the hat of our personality upon inherited trauma, what a rich vein to burden our characters with quirks and oddball habits directly related to the lives of our ancestors!

 

All in all, the festival was a thrill.  I missed so many panels and readings, but you know what? That’s okay. It’s nice to know that Literary Arts lays out such a feast. And, we can hear what we missed in their Archive project.

 

 

 

 

 

Banana Cake

Around the time I was sixteen, visits to my grandma’s tiny cinderblock house in Hallandale, Florida were no longer fun. I didn’t want to leave friends behind for the twenty-one summer days they’d spend smearing baby oil on their shoulders, drinking weak beer and hooking up. It wasn’t missing my friends that made me resent the trip, it was worry that my friends might not miss me. Upon returning I wouldn’t be part of the inside jokes. Belonging was always tenuous for me, a kid who went to five elementary schools, moving regularly until my mom discovered where she wanted to be, a California beach town. In high school, I went along with all group decisions. Cut class? Why not. Watch the door while a “hilarious” friend pooped in the Burger King sink? Of course. Eat mushrooms? Sure. Yell out the car window at pigeon-toed, awkward Dara, mangling her name, taunting her for no reason other than covering up my insecurities? If it meant not getting culled from the pack, absolutely.

My single mom, sick of me sneaking in at two a.m., getting bad grades, and slamming doors, wanted her own summer life. So, off I went to Florida. The trip kept me out of trouble and ostensibly made my grandmother happy. I was not a kid who would get up to messy business on my own. I needed cohorts. At Grandma’s, I was mostly quiet and bored. I picked at my skin, played with my hair—styling, braiding, cutting progressively shorter bangs with nail scissors. I read Agatha Christie books, ordered ice tea and tuna sandwiches by the pool at the Miami Sheraton where Grandma ran the Kid Klub.

Though I’d long since outgrown Grandma’s size 4½ shoes, at her home, I loved to stare at them, pumps, flats, sandals with kitten heels, patent leather, red canvas, all lined up in her shoe rack, which amazed me. A shoe rack! At our house shoes were abandoned by the couch or the back door. Grandma’s home was clean, buttoned up. While my mother favored Indian bedspreads tacked to the ceiling, paperbacks by Peter Benchley, Xaviera Hollander and James Michener splayed on the furniture, and overflowing ashtrays, my grandma raked her white shag carpet so it stood tall. Grandma made her bed every morning, crisp with her cheery yellow chenille bedspread. She taught me how to cocoon pillows inside the spread, how to smooth the surface with the palm of my hand. When I’d left for Florida, my mom’s waterbed was leaking. She’d accidentally lost the cherry on her joint and burned a tiny hole through her sheets and the plastic.

Grandma and I quickly fell into a rhythm, movies on Saturdays, the pool every day, dinner—mostly cottage cheese, chicken salad and Sara Lee banana cake—served on her breezeway, and TV at night. Grandma went to bed early and I’d stay up to paint my toenails, watch David Letterman, read her Time Life book collection: This Fabulous Century, and snoop through the medicine cabinet, her small desk. I excavated the drawers, examined bills: Florida Power and Light, Burdine’s Department Store, State Farm. I held her letter opener, dagger shaped and heavy. It seemed so civilized, a tool for opening a letter! I felt the faint stirrings of aspirations…shoe rack, letter opener, smooth bed.

It must have been in her desk that I found the pot. Tucked into an envelope from my mom who thought my grandma might enjoy getting stoned. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Grandma had glaucoma. Maybe it was oblique criticism. Maybe Grandma had gotten a contact high the last time she was in California. My mom always talked about contact highs. Me, our dog, Grandma, we were all susceptible and my mom thought it was far out. Whatever the reason I do remember my mom sending joints in a letter, and I was happy to be the recipient in the first few days of my visit. After dinner and the news and a sitcom, after Grandma went to bed, I’d take a few hits and get more banana cake. David Letterman dropped stuff off a five story building, read his top-ten lists, had a Monkey cam and a dog that attacked a vacuum cleaner. I’d get another slice and flip through the Time Life books, past pictures of breadlines and the Viet Nam war, Woodstock and the stock market crash of 1929, Twiggy and Richard Nixon. I’d go for more cake, flatten the shag carpet lying on the floor and staring at the Picasso print my grandma had over her desk.

The Tragedy was from his blue period. A family mourned on a beach. Licking frosting off my fork, I would stare at the mother and father who stared at the cold sand, and I’d think about what it must have been like for my grandma to lose a child to spinal meningitis when the girl was only four. She fell sick with a fever on Friday and was dead by Sunday. Grandma was only twenty, just four years older than me. I’d heard the story once from my mother, never from my grandma. The print was unbearably exquisite. It was torture and beauty. The father and mother draped in heavy dark clothes. The flat sea, their bony feet. My petite, dark-eyed grandma who touched up her roots every three weeks and wore baby doll pajamas with terry cloth slippers at the breakfast table, asleep now in her queen bed in the other room. Imagining such intense pain, holding the letter opener, shuffling through her bills, shaking the box of Doan’s pills from her medicine cabinet, I let my ears fill with my own dramatic tears. Awake and alone, roaming her house I didn’t even know I was lonely. I didn’t know that I was using her story, using Picasso and the pictures of the Dust Bowl to explicate my awkward fears. Was I normal? Would I ever be loved? I did this nearly every night. And in the morning, if Grandma was disappointed that there was no banana cake to enjoy with her coffee, she never said a thing.

 

Banana Cake

1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter
2 eggs, separated
2 bananas, crushed
½ cup sour milk
1-2/3 cups pastry flour
1 T baking soda
¼ t baking powder
½ t salt
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Heat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Cream together the butter and sugar, then one at a time, mix in the egg yolks, bananas, and sour milk, stirring after each addition until combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients (and the nuts if using) to the wet ingredients and stir to combine. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, and fold into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 T sour cream
¼ cup honey

Blend in a bowl and spread on the cooled cake. Decorate with toasted pecans.

Sometimes a Little Smack-Talk Helps

The holidays can be lovely and stressful (feel free to reverse the order or omit an adjective!). For me, the holidays are bittersweet. I miss family I rarely see. I miss times when my children were small enough to sit in my lap. I miss the anticipation and buzz of a full house, the scents from a busy kitchen, lingering at the table, and the great team my husband and I made—me cooking, him loading the dishwasher! It was fun and exhausting.

I admit to regularly weeping while I wrapped presents, alone in the living room late at night, a commercial for Maxwell House coffee would cue up, a young soldier coming home at dawn and making a pot of coffee for his family, the drip and smell woke his mom, whom he surprised. Got me every time. And now, it feels so false considering all the soldiers who come home and suffer, all the people who drink their coffee alone.

In addition to expectations pummeling us from advertising, there’s also social media’s constant portrayals of JOY!!!  Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the drive for more more more exhaust and disgust. These dark days (literally) beg for light, whether that means Chanukah candles, Christmas tree lights, the Kwanzaa Kinara, or celebrating Solstice with a cozy fire. I am so ready to embrace light (literal and metaphorical), to reinvent, to create and new rituals.

As I do, I turn to friends to find out what works.  I asked people what they do for selfcare during this freighted time of year. And, no surprise, I got a wonderful list.

  1. Dive into a book and/or a bath.
  2. Be a pillow for a dog or cat.
  3. Give yourself permission to say No.
  4. Take lots of walks.
  5. Cook something healthy…lentil soup, sourdough bread?
  6. Travel, if you can, preferably to a place where the holidays aren’t such a giant deal.
  7. Exercise.
  8. Lower expectations.
  9. Be as generous as you can, with your time, with your money.
  10. Make something: a potholder, a scarf, a pie, a short story.

Yes, this list can feel a little holier-than-thou. I recognize that sometimes a date with a trusted friend, a Manhattan, and a smack-talking session also does wonders for the soul. Just don’t overindulge in this one. Another thing that ALWAYS lifts my spirits…singing! Alone in the car is best, at full volume, particularly Alanis Morissette, this one.

Whatever you’re feeling about the impending holidays, I wish you a bright and light season which includes lots tenderness toward your heart. Here’s a little suggestion from Grace Paley’s story, “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age:

“…when you get up in the morning, you must take your heart in your two hands…put your hands like a cup, over and under your heart…stroke a little, don’t be ashamed…then you must talk to your heart. Say anything, but be respectful. Say—maybe say, Heart little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.”

 

List Power

 

I come from a family of list makers. My grandmother wrote her lists (both to do and grocery) with her black coffee and cigarette on the patio of her Miami beach home. My Aunt’s lists are written in beautiful cursive. Once I saw an item about halfway down, in between going to the market, and paying bills, ‘IB away” it said. When I asked her what it meant, she laughed, “Ironing board away!” The lists my mother kept when I was a child were also about the minutiae of her day, brush teeth they might have said, right above, finish thesis project and buy tickets to Crosby, Stills and Nash concert. My mother didn’t need to be reminded to brush her teeth, nor did my Aunt need a reminder to take down the ironing board, they just wanted the satisfaction of a beefy list all crossed off. Who doesn’t? I write lists all the time, with boring and aspirational goals. My husband has reams of lists which he rewrites on yellow legal pads. Sure, there are a million list apps, but I’m an old-school girl. Something about writing them out and crossing them out is supremely satisfying.

 

Why I love lists

 

    1. Lists organize us, help us remember, and make us feel good about ourselves.
    2. You can include on your list something you’ve already done so you can enjoy the buzz of crossing it off.
    3. Didn’t finish it? Carry action items over from one list to the next. For example, I’ve had finish my novel on my list for YEARS!  And lately I’ve been carrying over the item, tattoo?
    4. It is supremely satisfying and dangerous to write lists for other people, but I have done it, and it felt marvelous for me…maybe not so great for the listee.
    5. If you’re feeling blue, it’s okay to write, take a bath, take a walk, smile more to engage the feedback loop, on your list.
    6. Lists have space for BIG and small items, just below make a dentist appointment you can add, learn French! Or high dive in Brazil.
    7. Save your lists! They are a historical record of your life.
    8. List your favorite books, movies, meals, tv shows, etc… when you look back you’ll get a little frisson of happiness and discover what interested you.
    9. Save lists people have given to you. Here’s a list our daughter gave to us when she was around 6 or so.
      Sophie's List
    10. I start each day with a mini list: my g3/m3. Three things I’m grateful for and three things I want to manifest in my day. Sometimes they’re really pragmatic and sometimes lofty, I don’t write them with a cigarette like my grandma wrote her lists, but I do share them with a friend, nearly everyday, we swap our g3/m3 list to inspire and motivate one another.

Sh*t Gets Real

How is it that sometimes I just wake up in a mood? Nothing happened in the night beyond the ordinary getting up once to pee, dreams are neither remembered nor rehashed. And yet, as my eyes adjust to the morning light, I feel a mood in full force in my mind and body…happy or grumpy, energized or frazzled, worried, or, (and rarely these days), at peace.  This morning I woke up in full “I’m a fraud!” glory! You might know what I’m talking about: Who do I think I am _______, doing what I do?  For me, that means writing. I beat myself up. What do I have of any value to add to the conversation? How am I going to drag myself to my desk and stare at a blinking curser on a blank screen? The curser who says, fake, fake, fake.

And then I move on to: Oh crap, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I should have gone to law school!  How did I get myself into this awful space of feeling like a loser if I do work/write and feeling like a loser if I don’t work/write? And, how do I get out of it?

When I’m falling into my self-made sinkholes:

  1. I make my bed. Literally. A made bed tells me that I’m a doer. That I care about myself enough to have a sweet spot to welcome me back at the end of the day. I know, it sounds possibly ridiculous, but it works for me, so I’m not going to argue with myself.

 

 

  1. I reach out to friends. Because it is now, that means a text. This morning I texted a pal:

 

 

Which led me to texting a dozen pals (that’s kind of like writing, isn’t it?) to discover: “What are the three most pressing midlife concerns for women?” Which led to lots of interesting conversations, some laughs, enormous gratitude for friends and, here is the key, it all led to me FEELING LESS ALONE.  I know in the best case scenario, I would have taken a walk or had coffee with a friend IRL. But this way, I talked to 12 women who live all over the country. And, what I learned lifted me up and fed my work. How great to put these crystallized worries at the center of my characters’ lives.

Here’s how it came out:

  1. THEMES:
    1. shifting parenting roles w/adult children vs. teens: “What now? How to shift focus from family as a priority to another priority of meaning and value?”
    2. aging parents: “What will I be when I am no longer a daughter?”
    3. aging body: “What happened to my face? Knees? Vagina?”
    4. finances: “Will I ever be able to retire?”
    5. health and worry over future loss of a facile mind
    6. and, no surprise here: Who Am I/Who do I Want to Be?
      • “Isn’t it supposed to be easier now?”
      • “Will I ever figure out my life?”
      • “How is it that everything that motivated me in my career now seems worthless?”
      • “Is my marriage working?”
      • “Isn’t love enough?”
      • “Is my life about others? Or is it about me?”

Even the glib answers, which made me laugh, spoke to loss and worry about our place in the world—how we can claim what we want, and how we often cave in to what a youth-obsessed society tells us about middle aged women. Elective surgery? Self-medication?

  • “Who has the name of a good plastic surgeon?”
  • “What is the best rosé?”
  • “Is this fat around my stomach or is it really a new organ?”
  • “Shall I color my hair?”
  • “How do I stay supple?”

We are caregivers. We want love. We want to feel our lives and our work are of value. Of course we support our adult children as they learn to support themselves. We care for our parents. And at times we feel squeezed dry. (How do I stay supple? has many implications, no?) We maintain our sense of humor. We worry over at risk populations in a post-democratic United States. We vote, march, make phone calls, give money, change jobs, dye our hair or let it go gray. We leave marriages, we fall in love, sometimes we drink too much rosé, we worry, and we think about how to be the best old ladies we can. As one friend (who, by the way, was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy when she wrote this) said:

We do have choices. We may wake up in a state, but we can choose how we want to face the day, and how we want to face the last act of our short and beautiful lives. Lots of Beauty. Lots of laughs. That shit is real!

 

 

 

What I Love About Teaching Memoir Bootcamp

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
~Pablo Picasso

I’m not going to lie, I hate the name of this class: Memoir Bootcamp! Do we really need to militarize our art? But I get the impulse. All of us makers want to get work done, and the accountability this class offers is a huge boon to getting words on the page. Memoir Bootcamp is a place to make a commitment to your work and feel the support and inspiration of a writing community. It’s hard to sit at your desk, alone, facing uncertainties and the often jerky attitude of your inner critic. This class is a great place to let in the light, to share your work and read the work of your peers, to gain perspective on where you are on the path to your finished memoir, to hone writing tools like characterization and dialog and setting, and hopefully to discover a new truth of your own story.

What do I mean by that? Truth is a slippery thing. We all think we know our story, we own what happened, and yes, we do, but so does our sibling, or our partner, or our child. They all have their own true versions of the story. I believe it is through the act of writing that we make discoveries about who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. If we aren’t making discoveries as we make our art, how can we expect our readers to make discoveries along the way? As a matter of fact, I encourage you to stop reading this right now, go to a blank page and write. Write about a time you knew you were in trouble. How did you know? Has your perception changed? Write about a secret you never told anyone. Why have you guarded that story? Write about a fading memory that sticks with you. See what you discover.

What I love most about this class is, well of course, reading all the amazing stories, gaining access to the inner lives of the people around the table, and what I love next best is watching a community form.
2016 was a difficult creative year for me, so I decided to approach 2017 with a Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind attitude. I enrolled in multiple workshops and writing immersions. I’ve put myself on the vulnerable side of the workshop table, exposing my hatchling stories, nurturing essays and memoir pieces that cut close, owning my opinions of the work of my peers. It has been an amazing reminder for me of the grace around the table. I’ve said it many times, maybe if you’ve been in my workshop you’ve heard me, being around a table of writers with heads bowed, pen moving over page, a particular enlarged silence engulfs the room. That generous space is one of my favorite places to be in the world.

 

Enter the house of Munro!

 

“There isn’t time to say a word. Roberta doesn’t scream. George doesn’t touch the brake. The big car flashes before them, a huge, dark flash, without lights, seemingly without sound. It comes out of the dark corn and fills the air right in front of them the way a big flat fish will glide into view suddenly in an aquarium tank. It seems to be no more than a yard in front of their headlights. Then it is gone–it has disappeared into the corn on the other side of the road.”

This is from a favorite Alice Munro story, “Labor Day Dinner.’ It comes near the end, offering a moment of mystery and suspension of time. What an amazing and beautiful feat.

 

Alice Munro has said, “A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely oropulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

Those of us familiar with the stories of Alice Munro and those of us entering her house for the first time will be beguiled and sheltered by her spaciousness and concision. Whether in rural or urban settings, whether about departures or homecomings, birth or death, Munro’s stories provide us readers with plenty of surprise discoveries and inevitable truths. I was introduced to her work while in graduate school and was both inspired and daunted by her ability to write stories that capture a sweeping life and the decisive moments when a life is changed by a chance meeting, or an opportunity passed by. In this study session, we will read from “Selected Stories,” and discuss the work in terms of both form and content, craft and theme. What a treat to embark upon a deep study of Munro’s evolving revelations on self, women, family, and landscape.

I’m excited about taking a deep dive into Munro territory. I’ll be leading a Soapstone discussion group, Entering the House of Munro, for 6 Tuesday evenings, 19 September thru 24 October. Come join me! email info@soapstone.org if you’re interested, and I hope you are. Just a few spots left!

Dinner & A Story

 

 

STORY:

Zamboni, by Rebecca Makkai. Tin House Magazine, Winter Reading, 2016

What I love most about this fantastic story is Mel, our narrator, a disenchanted, unemployed, lonely and bored mom always bucking stereotype. I mean, jeez, she’s a sommelier! In a small town in Wisconsin where the best restaurant is a sushi bar! Her husband is clearly cheating on her and with the discovery there is no rending of sleeves, There’s zero drama, In fact, she considers his actions her get out of jail free card. Not as a way to end the marriage, but as a way to add swerve and complications to her life.

Makkai seems to have a lot of fun playing out Mel’s desire and strife in the ice arena. Any parent who has spent unceasing hours at their kids’ sport practice knows how brain numbing it can be. Mel, to counter her boredom, embarks upon a flirtation with the dad of a talented ice dancer.

He held out a hand, ungloved and red. His name was Sean. Sean Adler had curly black hair cut close and was, in Mel’s estimation, gorgeous. His whole profile changed when he swallowed, when his jaw muscles tightened under dark stubble.
        She said, “I shouldn’t say so, but I find this much more interesting than hockey.”
        She heard her choice of words—confessional, intimate—and recognized that she was flirting. Well good.

Makkai is the master of the great scene. She lingers, pushes past where I might choose to leave and so discovers more. Sodden drunken behavior at a party, too many revealing tweets, lies supported by a lab wearing its owner’s FitBit, a UTI, mean kids… the quotidian details all add up to something funny and smart and so much more than suburban gossip. It’s all here. I love this story so hard!  (Click here  to read the story online. Click here to purchase the Winter 2016 issue of the magazine. Trust me, you won’t be sorry. There are more fantastic stories inside from Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard and Jo Ann Beard.  Plus it’s on sale, 25% off with the code Summertime, as I write this! Yay!!)

 

DINNER:

 

Okay, I know …the only thing Italian about this story is the title, and a glancing mention of buttered Italian bread, but the eggplant was so tempting, the tomatoes so fresh, indulge me and this great recipe from this week’s NYTs which I’ve slightly adapted..

Pasta alla Norma.

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 12 basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs for garnish
  • 4 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes w/juice, fresh or canned (I used fresh and did not peel! Neither would Mel!)
  • 3 or 4 small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 pound pasta, such as penne, rigatoncini or spaghetti
  • 1 cup coarsely grated ricotta salata (or about 1/2 cup fresh ricotta and 1/2 cup cubed fresh mozzarella)
  • ¼ cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
  1. Tomato sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
  2. Stir in garlic and red pepper. Cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and let sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Turn heat to low and cover pot until it’s time to cook the pasta.  (Here’s where I screwed up and had to send my husband out for the pasta. I had only orzo and a good man!)
  4. Put a wide cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil to coat surface of pan. When oil is wavy, test by adding a cube of eggplant. It should begin to sizzle and brown immediately. Fill the pan with a single layer of eggplant cubes. Turn eggplant with a spatula or tongs and brown nicely on all sides. Lower heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature; if the pan is too hot, the eggplant will burn. Remove cooked eggplant to a paper towel or brown bag to absorb excess oil  and continue to fry remaining eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Season finished eggplant with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, roast the eggplant on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, lightly drizzled with oil, until cooked and nicely browned, about 20 minutes.)
  5. To assemble and serve, boil pasta until al dente, leaving it a little firmer than normal. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Here’s where I went a little cheese wild.  I added about 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, which turned the sauce a pretty pink.  I also added about 1/2 cup cubed fresh mozzarella along with the eggplant. Gently stir to combine. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or tongs, toss pasta and sauce, and let cook 1 minute more. Thin sauce if necessary with a little pasta cooking water.
  6. Transfer to a pasta bowl. Sprinkle with grated ricotta salata  (or not) and bread crumbs. Garnish with torn or whole basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.
  7. Serve w/a salad of mixed greens and a glass of bright rose, because it’s summer and because it’s delicious!

 

 

Happy Reading! Happy Eating! Happy Summer!