Get Back to Work, You

On a plane ride home from Tampa, I saw a giant of a man in the seat in front of me who wore such a skimpy tank top that I had a chance to count every one of the thousands of shoulder and back hairs visible to me.

Then, on that same flight, a mere 30 seconds after the pilot turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, a woman in one of the backmost rows began shouting “Jesus Christ,  will you people MOVE!”

Later, as we were all proceeding along the lengthy peristaltic trek to Baggage Claim, I saw at the bar of one of the airside eateries a youngish dude in a cowboy hat who kept shoving his napkin up under his sunglasses as he wept and wept while talking on his phone.

These were all things I noticed in one three-hour period.

It has literally been months since I have come to this blog to write down anything at all, whether happy or sad. Suffice to say it was some summer. But now, finally, I think I’m ready to begin again, maybe because of the kindly dermatologist I saw for the first time just before that flight. He asked what I did for a living so I told him I had taught high school English in my 20s, and then added with a look that was unmistakably nostalgic, that for 36 years I had written a weekly newspaper column.

Had written?” he asked .“Yes,” I sighed. “A day came, kind of out of the blue, when I felt I just couldn’t do it anymore. Writing a weekly column is like having to produce a term paper 52 times a year, I could also have quoted author Sidney Sheldon’s observation that a blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.

It was at this point that the nice dermatologist said something that has echoed in my mind ever since. “But of course you still write, don’t you?” he asked, and I literally hung my head. “Um, well…” I stammered, shamefacedly – and felt lucky to get even those two words out.

You know how when we were kids the grownups would sometimes say, “Let that be a lesson to you?” Well, I let that moment be a lesson to me. And it was only days later on my trip from Tampa to Boston that I suddenly noticed these three people I opened with above.

Why was the cowboy crying? I would never know. You can’t intrude on private grief by going up to someone and asking but still: I wondered.

Why did that mountain of a man wear what amounted to an above-the-waist thong on an airplane? Did he not feel embarrassed, the way I would feel if, say, my travel companion suggested I pull out a razor and start shaving my armpits? (Shaving on a Plane, now there’s an idea for a new trend!)

And I wondered even more about the yelling woman at the back of the plane who by now had elbowed her way to just two rows back from me. “Why don’t you go in my place?” I said to her.

She looked at me quickly, maybe to see if I was being sarcastic.

I wasn’t. “No, really,” I said. “I’m in no hurry.”

“It’s just that I get panic attacks,” she said. “I have awful claustrophobia.” And I thought yes maybe she does, because hadn’t I noticed her at the outset of the trip joshing good naturedly with the people around her as she was stowing her bag?

I had indeed. And maybe I would not have ‘seen’ her at all if that lovely doctor had not metaphorically lifted my chin, thus encouraging me to keep on doing what I so clearly love doing, that is noticing things and writing down what I notice.  Maybe, speaking of God, doing that is even a kind of prayer.

Once as Alive as You or I

DCIM100GOPROOn the tour of a Norman castle I took last spring, I heard all about the moat and the boiling oil, the outer wall and the inner wall and the poor souls who got tossed over the latter, to fall screaming to their deaths below.

I listened as hard as I could, trying not to be distracted by the vista surrounding us.I found it that fascinating.


But for all my listening I heard very little of what the daily life in that castle was like, which is what I most yearned to know about. I had to come back home and dig out my copy of T.H White’s The Once and Future King for that; because I had bought a paperback copy of this great tale of the Arthur Legend back when I was young and sure enough, there the tattered volume still stood, on the shelf where I had placed it. I flipped through the pages and there  was the passage I had remembered, outlined and waiting for me all these years later.

In it White describes the great walls surrounding a castle of this same era in England. Then he goes on on to say how things looked from the inside in those far-distant days, and what a spell he does cast with these words:

“So much for the outer defenses. Once you were inside the curtainwall, you find yourself in a kind of wide alleyway, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell ‘keep’ with its eight  enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to linger there looking toward the marshes from which all these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of boiling oil. 

“Think of how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault . On this tower the lookout moved. From there, he kept the guard over the blue woods toward Wales. His clean old bones live beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.

“If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railing to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its God, and the windows of the Great Hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the little side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous  kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews,  which were the cow byres, the armory, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers’ quarters, the priest room, and my Lord and Lady’s chamber. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people – they were much smaller than we are and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armor and  gloves that remain – will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow, which looks as if it had never moved.”

I have worked as a professional writer for over 35 years, penning essays and columns and autobiographical pieces and I just know that I would need another 35 years of study to even come close to the verbal artistry of this lonely and complicated man, who took a time 1400 years in the past and brought it to shining life.



A Great Thing It Is

gloria steinem at the keyboard

one of my writing heroes, Gloria

A great thing it is to be a writer. An even greater thing to be a writer who never made it to the big Leagues, and so has an undefinable ‘audience’ if she has an audience at all. (Is it the mom of this brace of babies in the twin stroller here? That late-night web surfer looking for news about Jeremy Bentham? The people who clicks through from my column in any given paper to see the blog post I wrote that day because that paper is nice enough to provide the link to it?)

Last week on this blog I had a piece about April Fools Day bookending things on the Monday and a picture of my mother in her casket bookending things on the Friday. Yesterday I posted Ten Tips for Using a Public Restroom and later this week I will post a piece, tearfully composed on the anniversary of his death, about my husband’s elderly uncle who became my own best friend. What I’m saying is I realize the tone changes a good bit from day to day and I hope that’s OK with people.

On the Writer’s Almanac last week I heard Garrison Keillor quote something Gloria Steinem said that I identify with entirely. She said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

I feel just that way about writing and also, I’ll admit, about any time at all that I have with young children and any time I spend reading things either by or about 19th century American writers. (Does anyone KNOW anymore how amazing Walt Whitman was? Walt Whitman who said “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches; give alms to everyone that asks; stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God; have patience and indulgence toward the people; go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families….”)

I just tell what I saw, heard, felt. I may sometimes amuse people and sometime anger people. Sometimes I may make them feel more than they wanted to feel and maybe sometimes I just make them yawn.

But every time I write I too feel, like Gloria, and probably like the great Walt Whitman, that there is nothing in this world else I would rather be doing.

This is What You Should Do Whitman

God Bless the New Friends

I’ve felt weirdly sad over the last few days and was about to offer some new droopy tale or other here today – until saw this post that my new friend and fellow blogger Brian Moloney wrote, saying how he’s been writing for exactly a year now and mentioning me in the course of his remarks.

He also quoted an excerpt from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey that brought back everything I so earnestly hoped and dreamed that I might do with my life, even back in junior high. It’s what came to me when I finally stopped obsessing about how funny-looking I was with my chapped lips and my too-short bangs.

You can read his whole post here but I’ll just say it begin by describing how a year ago now he was wondering if he really could go on puttin’ it out there every day when he came upon my name somewhere.  He says he wrote me on a day when he was ‘on the verge of chucking the whole thing’ – and it seems I wrote back, promising that I for one would read him every day and that the two of us would be go on to be friends forever.

“And surprisingly, nearly a year later, we are well on our way to being just that: forever friends,” he says.

“Even though I have never met her –  you know, because of the restraining order,” he adds in his jokey way.

“I have never mentioned her or thanked her before on this thing but I thought this was a good time to do it,” he goes on. “I won’t go into a lot of details but the truth is—if it weren’t for this lady with the odd Boston accent, I probably wouldn’t have made it to a month…let alone a year.” (Nice man! And he’s right too: I do have an odd Boston accent, as people keep telling me when they come across that little video I once made.)

He says we’re different because I’m more forthcoming about myself in what I write but still: we have in common the fact that “as difficult as it can be on any given day to put something worthwhile down on a page, we do it for the fat lady sitting on the porch swatting flies.”

That’s the Salinger reference, which I think means we do it out of some mystical blend of faith and general Agapic love, the kind we all hope to learn to give in our lives.

He recommends we all go to the last few pages of Franny and Zooey to see what he’s talking about.  And then we should go to the first page and read the whole thing, something he says we should have done long ago.

I did read the book long ago and was completely knocked out by its message – before I forgot about it for almost 50 years.

It just goes to show you that old theory about life is true: You really can’t see yourself. Emily Dickinson knew this. “The Mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly,” is how she put it. You  can’t know what effect you have in the world. It takes some kindly watching Other to do that for you.

Where Do I GET This Stuff?

“Where do you GET this stuff?” a reader recently wrote me, after reading that post I did about contraceptive methods at the time of the Titanic, and all I could tell him was the truth: The universe delivers it fresh to me every day, the same way milk once was once delivered, the bottles clinking together in their metal crates.

The idea for that particular post came from the National Geographic Society, whose electronic eyes and ears had ‘noticed’  I’d been wandering the decks of that long-submerged craft on YouTube and decided to forge a bond with me.

I got an email in other words, with a video clip showing a couple of archivists talking about those difficult days when a doctor they cited as having given birth control advice was banned from practicing medicine for having done so.

Other ideas cross my radar in other ways, just as they do with all of us: We overhear a bit of conversation. We open our eyes just as a Canada Goose zooms past our bedroom window, showing the intricate weave of feather and sinew that lets him soar. One fall morning we look at our accustomed across-the-street view to see trees so fiery in color they look like a gathering of redheads.

I can hold onto sights such as these if I go right to my keyboard and set them down, and in such a way that a reader can almost see what I saw, or feel something like what I felt. Then I try to write the way people talk. I try to write the way a teacher talks when he or she is trying to make you feel happy you came to class. Happy and safe and undaunted by the fact that today you’ll be starting that four-week unit on Macbeth.

Undaunted because the teacher will be with you the whole way, as will your pals in the seats around you.

Undaunted because you trust by now that this teacher won’t single you out or send you to the board to drill you with hard questions.

I mean yes, it’s Shakespeare and yes, the language takes some getting used to with ‘an’ sometimes meaning ‘if’ and ‘marry’ meaning ‘By Mary!’ or in our parlance ‘By God!’ but if you hear it read out loud or see it acted, the meaning breaks upon you.

Anyway, no one will blame you if you don’t quite catch it the first time.  Certainly there’s no shame there. Think of the child who thought The Star Spangled Banner had a line in about ‘bums bursting in air.’ Or that poor soul who got the words to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds wrong, really belting it out when he reached the part where ‘the girl with colitis goes by” – and  apparently never even wondering what an affliction like that was doing in a Beatles song.

But hey, some of the best fun you can have in life comes out of how wrong you get things. I think of the time I mistakenly poured cat kibble instead of laundry detergent into the washing machine.  And the time my little daughter wondered aloud about that old Daryll Hall song. You know the one surely: Where he’s saying “every time you go away you take a piece of meat with you“?

So where do I get this stuff? The world just delivers it up, like those milkmen of yore with their clinking bottles. All I have to do is be there to receive it. 🙂

God Can’t Be Shocked

Some people criticize John Updike, saying he objectified women, portraying them as mere sex objects and so on.

I never saw it that way, even though I read Rabbit Run the summer of my 13th year and felt my world split open upon reading the sex scenes.

Grownups do this?’ I asked myself stunned. This is what they’re up to when they’re not buttering our toast or rotating the tires on the family car?’

My big sister Nan had tried to clue me in on the particulars of sex; by the time she was ten she had sent away for a thousand pamphlets on the subject.

And certainly her information was better than what the boy down the street said happens after you get married: He said they then take you into a secret room and tie you together by your underpants.

What Updike described was much more specific. And once you got used to reading the actual truth, anything but shocking.

No, he never objectified women, in my book; in my book he only loved and noticed them.

He is the person who singlehandedly opened my eyes to writing.

Three years he is gone now and it has taken me almost that long to read his final collection of short stories, slim as it is. I just didn’t want it to end, knowing there would be no others.

Here’s one thing he said that I love and agree with. He said his theory was that God already knows everything and can not be shocked.

In the same essay he also said,

Only truth is useful. Only truth can be built upon. From a higher, inhuman point of view, only truth, however harsh, is holy. The fabricated truth of poetry and fiction makes a shelter in which I feel safe, sheltered within interlaced plausibility in the image of a real world for which I am not to blame. Out of soiled and restless life, I have refined my books.

I love that last sentence: Out of soiled and restless life I have refined my books. And I understand exactly the part about the shelter his creative writing made for him, remembering a description earlier in this book of the place he loved best as a child: it was the spot on the side porch of his first home where he would upend and then hide under the wicker furniture to become the observer unobserved.

It’s what I wanted to be since my own baby days, only my spot was under the dining room table. Now I lurk in my car or on the park bench, listening to the old men and yelping teens and the women together talking. It’s what I have been since the dawn of the Reagan years when I began writing my column. For all these years I have written every week for the papers and now, here on this blog, I write every day.

Seeing and then telling what you have seen is for me what I think it was for him too: merely a way of saying thanks for it.

Fret Not

I guess everyone knows who Tom Waits is, the singer with a voice like rocks being dragged over sheet metal – go ahead: take a quick listen – but I’ll bet not everyone knows how grateful and quietly pleased he seems to be with life. It’s something I learned by hearing him talk with Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” a few months ago when his latest album came out.

The first cut on “Bad as Me” is one where you’re just sure you’re hearing the pops and clicks of vinyl; you think it’s a record. Nope: that’s the sound of chicken on the barbecue, a sound so like the sound of a record you’re positive he had a phonograph there in the studio.

So too he said he could name no better way to get the sound of snare drum than to jump on a trampoline in November when it’s all weighed down with an autumn windfall of sticks and branches.

The man takes that kind of delight in the world; a child’s delight.

He said he’s been known to put a tape recorder inside a trash can and wheel it around the yard to see what kinds of sounds he gets, what kinds of rhythms suggest themselves.

You don’t need to worry even if you haven’t written for a whole year, he said, because the music is always there and all music has rests in it; you know that. You, you’re just on a rest if you’re not creating right now. No worries.

He also said he often just sings spontaneously, making up any old tune as he goes along, as does his collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan. “What’s the choreography of a bee?” he said rhetorically near the end of this interview. Bees don’t have instruments. Bees don’t take lessons in how to weave the patterns of their flight. They just fly.

It seems like a perfect lesson for a brand new week: Just fly. Just sing. You don’t need a guitar, he said, ’cause one thing is sure: “There are no frets on your neck.”

No there aren’t. In other words, sing or write any old way. That’s what I take this to mean. In other words, we make the path by walking, as the proverb goes.

Now here’s the nicest tune on Bad As Me, in my book anyway, something called “Back in the Crowd” which owes a lot to Elvis and a lot to Mexican music as you’ll probably hear right away. Enjoy!

Power of the Pen

If the number of people reading these posts about the college essay is any indication it looks like I’m meant to say a little more on the topic of writing. I see that my recent bungled job of caring for a little boy might offer instruction for us all: In spite of his having written me THREE laboriously hand-lettered notes, I still did not know that the child had been standing outside our bedroom door since 4am hoping to get our attention.

His first note says “When Can I get up? From Edward to TT” (I’m TT.) You can click on the word ‘first’ to see some truly inventive spelling. The second note, presumably written some 30 or 45 minutes later, reads “What time is it? To TT from Edward.” (This one really made me groan: how could we have forgotten yet again to put a clock in the back room where he was sleeping?) At home with his parents, he is told he can’t get up until 6. Good boy that he is, he assumed that rule held here at his grandparents’ house.) And the third and final note, above, as anyone can plainly read – ha ha OK not really eh? – says, “I am waiting patiently. Can you pick up the other notes?” again with the piteous ending “To TT from Edward.”

You must admit: this is some good straightforward writing, framed in three simple ‘asks’. No adverbs except the word ‘patiently.’ No flourishes.

Why can’t everyone write this way? That’s what Plymouth State Professor of Finance and Economics David Talbot wonders who said this two days ago:

Your piece could not be more timely. I am sending it to my 16 students over here in Ireland. They write essays each week for their Critical Thinking class. I am constantly editing their excessive adverbs to provide clarity and strength in their writing. I hope it helps to hear it from a pro.

But pity the poor high school seniors struggling to write that Essay on Anything for their college application! Can they even help it? I’m convinced they go on filling the page with platitudes because they’re nervous; because somewhere along the line they got the idea that it’s good practice to write in an inflated manner. In fact an actual professional in the field tells me she too feels merciful toward them. “Susie” at wrote:

As a private college counselor, I couldn’t agree with you more. The college essays are my favorite part of the college admission process. However, I do think that the majority of students will write the best essays they can if they have someone to talk with them about possible topics that they might not even have considered. Too often they are focused on what they think a college admissions committee would like to hear and not what they would like to tell them. I love the essays that students write, especially when they are enthusiastic about what they have to say.

Here’s to the merciful Susie, I say. Some people, like young Edward, are willing to go on record as soon as they can hold a pencil and spelling be damned.

The rest of us need kindness and encouragement and often many many years before we dare speak in our own true if croaky voices.

When in Doubt Cut it Out

The day my piece about how to write the college essay appeared I heard from a young woman in Canada who was wondering if I could take a look at what she had written for her first-person essay. Hers was 80 words longer than the 500-word limit she said. Could I see what I thought of it and maybe help her figure out what to cut?

“Sure!” I said. I’m 30 years a columnist! I probably can’t write more than five or six hundred words together anymore. I told her I’d love to read her essay, which turned out to be so charming, I almost couldn’t see what to cut.

So instead I gave her a piece of advice I’ve never given myself, which was to go through the piece and take out just about every adverb she came across. In fact I went through it and did that, then emailed it back so she could see what she thought.

I’m not sure she liked the new version but I sure did. To me it seemed so much stronger and more, I don’t know.. authoritative without the adverbs. It’s a paradox: I mean you think these modifiers are really going to light up your writing but instead they make you sound like you’re trying to coerce a certain response from your readers, or put something over on them, or God forbid sell them something.

Today I’ve been mentally composing something about this past weekend when our littlest grandchild, under our care for a day and a night, slowly sickened. I could write “He was very cold, he said,” or I could simply write  “He was cold, he said.” Just setting this down helps me see that the second sentence is probbaly the more effective one – and not just because it’s shorter. Sooooo what if I apply this rule to my own writing? Flipping through the first book I ever did, I came upon this description of the day my appliances died. Here’s how it looks as published:

Last week the dishwasher, bloated up with its weird fluids, suddenly chuffed dangerously and began bleeding water from every seam; water which flooded, Nile-like, under the island, under the rug, and on 20 feet or more into the living room. Two hours later, the air conditioner groaned by way of a suicide note, leaned back sharply and tried to jump out the second-story window. Strong hands and split-second timing were all that stood between it and shattering death on the sidewalk.

And here it is without most of the modifiers:

Last week, bloated with the usual fluids, our dishwasher suddenly chuffed and began bleeding a stream of water that flooded both floor and rug and snaked all the way to the living room. Two hours later, the air conditioner groaned by way of a suicide note, leaned back and tried jumping out the second-story window. Strong hands and split-second timing were all that stood between it and death on the sidewalk.

The second one really is better! Anyway it’s far less wordy.

Which means that Strunk & White were right in saying “When In Doubt Cut it Out” and that old Shot Myself-in-the-Face Hemingway knew what he was doing when he took that boning knife out and pared, pared, pared away at his sentences.

I read back over this and see that I too have gone over 500 words,  which I hate to do to you guys, suffering already with eyestrain. So hey thanks for wading through this. And thank YOU Emily from Canada for helping me re-learn a valuable lesson. 🙂

(A page from the chapter of my first book here. God it was fun to publish these collections! )

Holding Back

The high school reunion I talked about yesterday was so great I’ve decided to throw the whole topic in the pot for a few days and kind of let the flavors blend together. In a week or so I’ll know what I should tell here I bet.

I find it’s best to do that with your experiences – let them settle a bit before talking about them I mean. Otherwise you get all wound up, telling things in the wrong order, and generally babbling on till people’s eyes glaze clear over.

It’s a real tightrope if you’re a teacher, like I was back in the day. I knew better than to go on and on but I couldn’t just let them sit there either during those unpredictable times when the P.A system would crackle into life to announce that for reasons none of us needed to know the period would be extended indefinitely. Then there you’d be with 30 antsy captives in front of you and the day’s lesson almost done. You had to keep them engaged, keep them discussing, I always thought. You’d be crazy to let them just descend into jabbering chaos, right?

What about the shy girl who had no one to jabber with?

Or the new kid from Holland with his weird sweaters?

What about those twosomes of whispering girls who could make even God feel bad, so sure He’d be that they were talking about Him?

Or the boys itching to clobber each other with their books?

No, you HAD to keep them talking – and listening – to each other. What a waste of those extra minutes together if you didn’t.

Enough. I seem to be the one babbling now! Suffice to say the ability to Keep it Going with questions back and forth is a handy skill to have wherever you land in adult life, even just to help you pass the time in line at the DMV.