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If Only

The other night, Jim and I watched The World According to Garp.  I read the book long ago and this was the second time I’ve seen the movie.  Watching it again, at this point in my life, seemed pertinent to two things that are nearly always on my mind but perhaps have been more in the foreground lately: parenting and writing.

My favorite thing about parenting was sharing as much of my knowledge with Mycol as I could and expanding his world to include as many experiences as possible.  I loved teaching him the academics, like reading and math, and I loved talking philosophically with him, at any age, in an effort to get him to consider the relationship between himself and the world.

When Mycol was 13, John Irving was on the schedule of presenters for the Drue Heinz Lecture Series.  Because I’d read nearly every one of his books, I was excited to go and hear him speak.  He was promoting his then yet-unpublished novel Until I Find You.  I took Mycol with me.  A prominent theme in many of Mr. Irving‘s stories is that of an only-child; a son, raised by a single mother.  At the lecture podium he spoke to the audience about the pros and cons of this relationship, which was again featured in the upcoming book.  He spoke about how only-children often get included in adult conversations, and in particular, only-children of single parents are likely engaged in even more still, because the parent relies on the child to be a sounding board for venting daily struggles they would otherwise dump on a spouse.  And to top it all off, Mr. Irving felt that this situation is most exaggerated when the only-child is a boy and the single parent is a mother.  So, there we sat, my 13 year-old son and I, in the Carnegie Music Hall, listening to John Irving talk about how the single mother in Until I Find You treated her son like an obligated boyfriend, and when I looked around the room all I could see were couples, not one single other pubescent child at all.  True, I’d wished my boyfriend would’ve gone with me, but I also felt glad that my son said he’d go when I asked him.  I was proud when he participated in things of that nature without so much as sighing, as if he really had learned to thirst for knowledge and new experiences (from me, of course!).  But when John Irving started to say those things, I felt like a spot-light was on us and I was flushed with embarrassment.  He’d called me out and announced to everyone that it was inappropriate to bring a child to adult programs.  After all, he was (is) John Irving.

Well, thank God, my son wasn’t scarred for life!

It reminds me of how my brother and I grew up in a house filled with books.  I am by far a more avid reader than he is, which I can only imagine is a direct result of the trauma incurred by Richard III when he was merely 3!

Then there is writing.  Another prominent theme in Mr. Irving‘s novels is a main character who is a writer.  A writer who struggles.  Authors are always saying the same thing about writing – that it is hard.  It is so hard to find the necessary discipline to keep at it, to not think everything you write is crap, to stop procrastinating by doing everything under the sun other than write something and just do it.  John Irving had a lot of athletic discipline as a wrestler.  I’ve been inspired every time I remind myself of what he used to do.  He used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and sit at his desk to write.  He set an alarm clock on his desk to ring at 8:30 am, at which time he would push away from his desk and lead the rest of his life, which was the life of a father, husband, wrestling coach, and teacher.  Whether he got anything on paper in those 3 hours was not necessarily the most important thing.

I have a slightly different clock than John Irving.  I don’t ever plan to get up before the sun rises, it makes my stomach turn.  But I am pushing myself, challenging myself every day to try harder, to do my best, and looking for inspiration.  Sometimes I think that I could pour all of my parenting energy into writing discipline and I may end up with yet another creation (besides my only child).

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Bibliophiliac

Last year Yim and I were at Barnes & Noble and there was an author of children’s stories at the store signing books.  I cannot remember her name, but she was blind.  Yim, who loves to strike up lengthy conversations with everyone and at any time, got involved in a talk with the author and her husband on the discipline of writing.  I, who feel I must be in top form in order to get on with talking to strangers, reluctantly walked over to the three of them that evening.  I’d browsed the stacks long enough and I could no longer avoid the inevitable.  Yim would introduce me to the author and her husband and I’d be forced to make small talk when I was not even close to interested.  But as unfortunate as I felt at the time to have to put on airs of enthusiasm, I can now be grateful for the advice I was given.  That author, whose name I cannot recall, suggested that I read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott.  I remembered that title, Bird by Bird, and eventually looked up Ann Lamott online.  I watched a video clip of her speaking and I was intrigued because she is so strange and funny and smart.  So I bought the book, 6 months later.  Yim couldn’t even remember the blind author at Barnes & Noble by that time, let alone the book she’d recommended.  And then, as is prone to happen in my life these days, Bird by Bird sat unopened on my coffee table for another stretch of months.  Until last week when I finally peered inside at the first few pages and began to read.  Oh, so far I’ve only read the introduction and the first 28 pages beyond that, but I am enthralled and inspired.  Everything I’ve read thus far is true, true, true!  It’s uncanny.  Does she know me?  Or, damn, I’ve just realized that I am not special at all, but indeed, just like all the other writers or wannabe writers in the world.  Still, to read your thoughts put on paper by someone else, someone you’ve never met, well, it’s affirming.  I have excitedly told Yim about the book and what I’ve read.  When I am finished with it, I will pass it along to him.  In the meantime, however, I am glad to read to him interesting passages from its pages.  Just last night when we spoke on the phone, Yim shared with me his frustrations with writer’s block.  I asked if I could read to him over the phone, and when I got to this paragraph my eyes welled up with tears.  For the second time.  These words from Ann Lamott‘s book give me a feeling of awe and inspiration.  I said to Yim, “I must really love books!”

“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean;  they show us how to live and die.  They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.  And quality of attention:  we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention.  An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.  My gratitude for good writing is unbounded;  I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.  Aren’t you?  I ask.”  — Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird

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Some of you have expressed an interest in hearing about our Easter holiday.  Wearing a polar fleece jacket and looking out my window at the cool and rainy spring day outside, I realize even more what a great holiday it was.

First of all, the rally of kith and kin was much-anticipated, as we’d not been able to muster a complete reunion in over a year’s time.  And most recently it had been a planned, then cancelled, then planned, then cancelled event, mainly due to snow, work schedules, and tons of more snow.  So when the MD crew arrived at the Estate on April Fool’s Day, it was no joke!  We broke out the good stuff!

Once everyone’s luggage was out of the trunk, we headed to the playground for Rockwell’s sake.  He’d been in the car seat a little too long.  Everyone loves the playground, even Grand Mere.  This one is on the property of Lord Mycol’s old elementary school; we’ve spent lots of time having fun there over the years.

Then it was back to the Estate for dinner.  Brother Rock brought up a sack full of Martha’s Vineyard oysters to kick off the weekend of revelry and celebration of the erection!  Er, uh, resurrection.  After all, “Oysters are amatory food,” said Lord Byron.

Get a load of these two shuckers:

Oysters for Easter. . . well, not quite.  Oysters have been cultivated since long before the Christian era.  Just like Roman emperors, we feasted on the fresh bi-valves with a dash of pepper and a drop of lemon juice.  And chew!  He was a bold man that first ate an oyster. — Swift

We ate every last one and I have to admit, I enjoyed them more than I ever had before.

Oysters by Jonathan Swift

Charming oysters I cry:
My masters, come buy,
So plump and so fresh,
So sweet is their flesh,
No Colchester oyster
Is sweeter and moister:
Your stomach they settle,
And rouse up your mettle:
They’ll make you a dad
Of a lass or a lad;
And madam your wife
They’ll please to the life;
Be she barren, be she old,
Be she slut, or be she scold,
Eat my oysters, and lie near her,
She’ll be fruitful, never fear her.

A day later, Good Friday, everyone was full of energy and excited to get out and play in the beautiful weather.  I was anxious to have Rockwell as a guest so that I could share with him some of the fun things Lord Mycol and I used to do when he was young.  I suggested we take Rockwell and his bicycle to the trail at Panther Hollow, where he could race the wind on the open dirt road.  Naturally, it was the one day I left my camera behind and can only tell you in words how he flew fearlessly ahead of his family, seeming to forget for fleeting moments that we existed.

At the pond, Rockwell became an explorer, hopped off his bike, carelessly abandoned it, and walked under the stone foot bridge to throw pebbles in the moving creek below.  I believe that Lord Mycol was with me, daydreaming of a time when he, too, was small enough to explore the trail, creek, and woods with wonder.

We finished the day gathered at the table dining on the freshest halibut you could possibly imagine, compliments of brother Rock, who also did the preparations.  Sadly, no pictures exist of our Good Friday, but I assure you, it was Good!  On the other hand, I have loads of shots from the rest of the weekend, so stay tuned.

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Last night I finally went to a Storytelling Night with Yim.  He’s been asking me to go almost as long as he’s known me and somehow it has never worked out.  So after dinner last night I drove out to Border’s Bookstore and met up with him.  I didn’t expect that all of the stories would be children’s tales, but the best thing happened!  Storyteller Barbara Guger told the Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White and Rose Red.

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As a child, I had a Tale Spinners album (I think it was Tale Spinners) with Snow White and Rose Red on one side and The Goose Girl on the other.  I listened to this story so many times that when I heard it told again last night I recognized every bit of it, and it was just as wonderful as ever.  I realized that I had a vivid picture in my mind of every scene in the story; a result of the effects of listening to a story and using your own imagination as opposed to watching a story play out on screen.  I loved every word of it.

I feel really good today because I have gotten a lot of things done in the past week and therefore I am extra confident that I will accomplish even more in the week to come.  I’ve made my lists and systematically crossed things off.  I’ve managed my time wisely.  My motto is “If I rest, I rust.”  I have gardened with Yim, broken bread with the Italian Ladies Social Club, cleaned the house, renewed library books, cooked delicious, whole food, written, brought good company and lunch from Pho Minh to dear friends recovering from illnesses, gone to Storytelling Night with Yim and his boys, had the roof repaired and entirely resealed, and started a new home improvement project myself.

In the coming weeks I hope to post all about the Easter holiday with my family, the garden that Yim and I have started, and I’d like to review all of the remodeling and decorating efforts I have made over the past 2 years.

Yesterday I started to remove the wallpaper from the entry hall with the stairs to the second floor.

My goal is to paint the walls a light gray, re-shellac the woodwork where needed, and pull up the carpet.  So far I think the floor beneath the carpet is in good condition, but we shall see.  This wallpaper has been the worst I’ve ever removed.  It is not vinyl, washable, cloth-backed paper.  It is glue-backed paper and it is stuck like skin to the wall.  First, I perforate the paper by running my utility knife in a criss-cross pattern all over the area.  Then, I spray the wall with a warm water and vinegar solution.  After it sits for about 10 minutes I start to go at it with my scraper, trying to pry up edges and pull back the sections as well as I can.  Mostly the paper starts to peel in layers and I have to re-spray and re-scrape until it is all gone.  The upstairs hallway has the same paper and I’ll get to work on it once this hall is finished.  I can’t wait.

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Inventors are a strange breed of people.  They tinker in their cellars and brood over schematics, too engaged in their own thought processes to care much about interacting with the rest of the world.  So one can only imagine what a Norwegian inventor might be like.  I know one myself, technically he’s a co-inventor, and today’s post is dedicated to him.

To help you understand the Norwegian, I have gathered some indisputable facts for your perusal.  For instance, it is important to realize that Norwegians are steeped in age-old culture, which makes them smell like old cheese.

Speaking of cheese,

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Leif Garrett, Norwegian-American cheese.

But seriously, speaking of cheese, my favorite Norwegian inventor, Thor Bjorklund, invented the cheese slicer.  So now you finally know who cut the cheese.  Bjorklund’s invention was revolutionary in maintaining Norwegian old-world views.  In Norway, “any form of elitism is likely to meet strong criticism.”  This is a concept of Jante Law, which dictates that the Big Cheese stands alone.

Norway also gives us the author Knut Hamsun.

Hamsun is the author of one of my favorite novels ever, Hunger, inspired by the, ahem, “delectable” Norwegian dish, smalahove.

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So let’s get to the man this post is really dedicated to, my favorite Norwegian co-inventor, Dag, who will be portrayed by the Norwegian-American Walter Mondale.

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The question is, are you still considered a co-inventor if your partner is a clone?  Anyway, this man came to America, married my best friend, and then took her to Norway.  And together they produced three outstanding inventions:

The Lindy.

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The Emil.

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And the Mila.

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The original patents have not been disclosed in an effort to secure their integrity.

So, in celebration of Dag, Norwegian co-inventor and thief of friends, whose birthday is today,

Happy Birthday, Dag!

Gratulerer med dagen, Dag!

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When I was in high school I discovered the real difference that warmth and sunshine could make in my life.  Growing up in the city, I lived in a huge, drafty house built a hundred years before we moved in.  Nights between October and May were spent under so many layers of blankets that I couldn’t roll over under the weight.  To this day I can go to sleep and wake up eight hours later in the exact same position.

Then I went to boarding school my freshman year of high school.  And there was warmth.  I spent a lot of time after that thinking of ways to stay warm once I graduated.  The short story is, I went to live in San Diego for three years before moving back north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  The long story is for another time.  But since moving back I have closed my eyes more than once in the dead of winter, to imagine myself lying in the sand, half naked, with the sun toasting the surface of my skin, as a balmy breeze drifts over me.

In the summertime I feel energized and strong.  Even though when we reach August I start to feel a little anxiety over the eminently approaching winter season, I am able to convince myself that it’s no big deal.  This is false, of course.  This is the talk of “summer muscles.”

In November I will start to think about flying south in January or February, but the holidays provide just enough distraction so that I start to rationalize with myself that I could buck up and survive without falter, save my money, and maybe even embrace the weather.  And when February makes me shiver, I begin to regret my fear of flying, metaphorically speaking, and start to look for opportunities to GET ME OUT OF HERE.  Seriously, people, you must try to understand that cold weather HURTS me.  I am obviously too weak to fight the chronic pain of it.  After all these years of being told to “put another sweater on” to no avail, for the love of God, if you love me you will understand my burden.  Enough said.  (Until I address poor circulation, low blood pressure, and what the acupuncturist did.)

Enter 2008.  It was February.  I was heartbroken.  (See “On Time and Love“)  This is when it is good to have great girlfriends who will hang out with you while you pick up the pieces.  And, as promised, a cure for the winter doldrums. . .

One of my favorite pastimes is beach camping.

From the beaches of Assateague to Puerto Rico, I have enjoyed the merging of outdoor living with my favorite outdoor location.  For adventurists who love the ocean and are more impressed with nature than a mint on their pressed pillowcase, beach camping is an ultimate vacation.  In 2008 my friend Alison told me she wanted to return to the Florida Keys for a camping trip.  In my wretched state it was music to my ears.  We made plans to fly out in April.

Although I often travel without a plan because I get excited about feeling as free as possible, Alison assured me that it’s best to make reservations in the Keys.  Even when camping.  Especially when camping.  The Florida Keys are a hot spot for RV’ing fishermen who are devoted to spending their vacation time fishing the blue waters.  And don’t forget that each key is narrow and small, limiting accommodations.  There are only about 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West.

So, Alison and I flew into Miami and rented a car.  We had packed our luggage wisely, I with the tent and lantern, she with the headlamps and lavender mist for inside our shared sleeping quarters.  Incidentally, there are approximately 65 miles between Miami and Key Largo which can be enjoyed driving with the windows wide open and Luther Vandross belting “Never Too Much” as you sing along.

Alison made reservations at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo and Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon.  We spent a day at Bahia Honda, touted as the “Best Beach in the Continental U.S.”, and although we did not bivouac there, we did mooch on their facilities.

There is a lot of snorkeling to do in the Florida Keys and Alison is an ocean lover of the aquatic variety.  There are two types of people who love the ocean.  The type that loves it from within, i.e. Alison, Yim, etc., and the type that loves it from without, i.e. me.  All I wanted to do was lie in the hot sand and warm my bones, but Alison is such a good friend and when she begged me to go snorkeling with her I acquiesced, on the condition that she sing karaoke with me later at the Caribbean Club.

From Pennekamp we made arrangements to board a boat going 7 miles out to snorkel the Banana Reef.  There were about 25 people going out that day.

I should mention here that I am not a fan of horror movies because they are generally unbelievable and therefore do not frighten me.  I don’t mind a good scare, though.  When I saw the preview for Open Water, I made a point of seeing it because my worst fear ever is to be in water that I cannot see below the surface of.  And that hosts other living creatures.  And that is too deep for me to touch my feet to the bottom.  And that movie scared the crap out of me.

So many things happened in my life when I was three, but one of them was that I stepped off a sand ledge in the Atlantic while camping on Ocracoke Island and when I realized I was under the water with the fishes, fishes that I could see!, I had to quickly learn how to swim towards the light to save my skin.  This is why when I was 15 and wiped out while water-skiing (hey, alliteration) I panicked while waiting for the boat to swing back around for me because I saw an enormous dead tree log floating waaay over by the bank of the lake and was able to convince myself that it could possibly be a Loch Ness Monster.

When snorkeling 7 miles off the coast, the guides advise you to stay with your partner.  Seven miles off the coast the waters were colder and there was a damn cloud, the only cloud in the sky, right above us, blocking the sunshine.  My bikini and a life jacket were not enough to keep me from shivering with goose bumps.  When someone said, “Hey, there’s a shark,” I did not care that it was a 6-7 foot lemon shark swimming deep below us in the reef.  My eyes confirmed what my ears heard and I turned and high-tailed it back aboard our boat, leaving Alison alone and up to her neck in sharky waters.  I was the first one back to the boat and I had to wait another half hour, at least, before the guide signaled everyone else back.  I am a land creature.  I do not require breathing apparatus on terra firma.

Alison did sing karaoke with me at the Caribbean Club.  We sang Madonna’s “Cherish” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”  Alison did not run off the stage.  Later in the week we would return to the Caribbean Club to witness a rehabilitated manatee being released back into it’s natural habitat.

My favorite place in the Keys was Curry Hammock in Marathon.  The camp facilities were pristine and the beach was peaceful.  Beaches in the Keys are narrow and sometimes a bit rough to walk on, but the sand is nearly white, the water is shallow and warm a long way out, and the wildlife is amazing.  At Curry Hammock we got kayaks from the park office and paddled out around the key.

If you are quiet and patient the wildlife will reveal itself to you.  Manatees and sharks, jumping fish, cranes and other birds of Florida can be seen.  Alison and I took the kayak into the cave created by the low growing tangle of the mangroves that grow so thick, only slivers of sunlight shine directly through.  I felt like an explorer in the rain forest.

Lastly, we drove down to Key West and toured Ernest Hemingway’s house.

We ate fantastic food and drank salted margaritas while listening to live music outdoors.

We stumbled upon a street party celebrating freedom of expression . . .

And athletic abilities . . .

We stood in a crowd and watched the sunset, just like Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines (R.I.P.) did in Running Scared (cue Michael McDonald!).

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And then we enjoyed the buskers performing on the waterfront.  I bought 2 great pieces of silver jewelry in Key West, a ring and a cuff bracelet, as souvenirs.

So there they are.  The Florida Keys: cure for the wintertime blues.  And for heart-ache.

So we went in April, which is technically spring.  And Hemingway killed himself anyway, but he was a severe case.

Oh, what the heck:

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Tuesday Nights

Tuesday nights are spoken word nights at Shadow Lounge.  Slams are every third Tuesday.  The poets are short on time (3 minutes or less), but long on inspiration.  Yim and I saw DJ Brewer, Jah Liv, and Brian Francis perform, among others.

Brian was so sweet and amiable.  I was glad to discover that he knows Stacey Waite, my poetry professor from Pitt.

I don’t think I’ll be a slam poet, but I’d like to get up there any other Tuesday and give it a shot. How about this:

California Thirst

The avenues host five-bedroom mansions

with treated lawns that drink sprinkled water

in the middle of a drought.

The alleys are lined with converted garages

that no longer house the Rolls,

but shelter government wage sailors

and the girls that shack up with them.

Sometimes, a nice looking girl will be seen

walking down the avenue

with a package of groceries.  Her feet are bare

and she will turn discreetly

into the alley.

She lives in that old garage that is now a duplex.

That sailor she lives with surfs all day

and drinks all night.

She stabbed his board to death with the fire poker,

so he cut all the straps and heels from her shoes

with the garden shears.

There is never enough to drink.

I will read my poems slowly and rhythmically, ala Bukowski.  Listen to him read The Genius of the Crowd, one of my all-time favorites.

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