Friday, May 29, 2009

A Metaphor

Tonight sports became a metaphor for life. I watched the Red Sox falter, give up runs in a big inning, swat ineffectively at balls and lose. Sitting at home I couldn't do more than offer suggestions,

Take out Wake.
Why did you wait so long?
Do something about the dh not hitting?

My words echoed and no one answered.

My daughter sits in an oncology office. She will take more tests. Tests to determine if there are errant cells. My words can't change anything. They can't eradicate anything. I can pray.

The Denver Nugget's season is over.

The fans didn't affect the game.
They watched, yelled, twisted their hands, and hoped that the Lakers got cold and stopped defending.

I'll pray that you have strength; that the cells didn't migrate, that you feel enveloped in love, that our prayers will be answered.

Please know that I love you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


To find an intriguing plot with engaging characters isn't sufficient.

To write without lapsing for long periods of time into the enclave of passive constructions isn't enough.

To put together sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters of coherent thoughts, to eschew flaccid prose, to make Strunk and White proud, to offer up details and concrete particulars— isn't adequate.

I want to write a good novel, not fiction masquerading as good, but one that is worthy of being read.

I read across the spectrum —from weak kneed quick reads to tomes requiring a slow perusal.

Some books, like fine sherry or good teas, slow time down. They obliterate the now and offer a glimpse of another reality.

Sentences stop time.
Nothing happens there, and it's happening round the clock.
Jonathan Lethem

I pause. I am engrossed with the thought and immediately my autobiography enters the line. Every book seeks its reader's autobiographies, if not the book sputters.

Cynthis Ozick wrote:
Fiction is all discovery—
Essays know too much.

It is the act of discovery that lures the writer to check the landscape ahead. You may know the type of toothpaste your character likes, but it is the unexpected turn the character takes that draws the writer to follow. Following without stalking, following without fencing in, without predetermined outcomes, following without judging —

I think of writing a lengthy piece beyond the confines of a short story, an exploration toward the edges of a novel. Desire isn't sufficient.


If I find a setting and people it with characters and if I discover a plot and if I know what my protagonist desires and if I set up pitfalls and if I allow my characters' voices that travel beyond my assumptions— how do I begin?

Everything is gestation, then bringing forth.

How long for gestation?

Suppose I tell the story of a woman who loses her children one by one. I knew such a woman. When her refrigerator only contained wine, beer cans and leftovers her children began to leave. Their father offered a refrigerator of food, shelves of snacks.

She told stories until the only story she knew how to tell remained at the bottom of a glass. The last time I saw her she never knew I left her sitting in the living room lecturing an empty house. I learned that there's only so much you can do. I left food in the refrigerator.

Aharon Appelfeld starts his new book:

My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name.

If I write a first sentence...will the rest follow?

Friday, May 22, 2009


I'm impressed when people rattle off the names of flowers or identify trees by their leaves, or needles, or bark, or know mushrooms by their shapes and spores.

I'd like to recite a litany of the proper names for rocks and shells, for cloud formations, for the strata of the earth. Instead I imagine what it's like to dwell inside a moon snail, or to be tumbled smooth by the ocean, or to look at the sky and see a chariot.

To name. To be the person who names another. To earn a name: I named my son after my grandfather David. My grandfather had worn paint splattered clothes five days a week and then every Friday evening he put on a white shirt and welcomed the Sabbath. I loved to hear him chant the ancient prayers.

I lived close to the Bronx Zoo and learned to read the names of animals before I learned to read a proper text.

There are other names. Names that incite and names that hurt—a hurt corkscrewing into your marrow. Names invoked for an entire people, stereotypes that pass down from generation to generation. The pronoun they resounds with venom.

Naming is a gift. Discover a new orchid and it may bear your name.

Yesterday I heard a father call his little girl "my sunshine". That's a gift.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


A photo of a man who had a face transplant appeared in the Boston Globe; his story and his words accompanied the photo.

It's hard to imagine the isolation fostered on someone whose face causes others
to turn away to avoid staring.

The world must like synchronicity.

Yesterday I was food shopping, checking my list for the vegetables I needed to make ratatouille. A woman wearing a short sleeve cotton dress —a patterned dress with muted shades of blue or perhaps brown—looked at the green peppers, taking great care with her selections. I watched her bend over the peppers–discarding or keeping. I’m a quicker shopper.

When she turned around I noticed her face—so disfigured. A little boy started to stare and his mother whisked him off to look for cookies before he blurted out a comment or pointed.

I asked silently," Do you have someone, a friend or family, to share the meal that includes the lush green peppers?"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It's Not Simple

"I've made her a large card with the numbers nine and five created out of Werther's butterscotch candies. It's what my mother loves and the only gift she wants for her birthday."

I remember reading about someone’s 87-year-old Aunt who enjoyed “chain-sucking one Werther's butterscotch candy after another.”

"We had " she added, "a wonderful relationship, but the mother I remember disappeared a while back."

The thought gnaws at my memories. Do we always parse a person's life? Do we parse our own life?

Some segmenting can't be avoided—before, after, during. We recall events that connect to particular time periods, to certain people.

Fifth grade:

Bernie, the class clown, whose antics made Miss Kissel laugh even when she wanted to keep a straight face.

This is the same Miss Kissel Bernie saw on the school roof kissing a married teacher—or so he said.

Am I not the aggregate of all my years?

A number of years ago I joined a poetry group at a local library. One member of the group, Norman, was an assistant editor of a poetry journal. His poem had been accepted for publication in the Atlantic Monthly a month before his car and another car met at an intersection. The accident left him a quadriplegic.

I never knew Norman before the accident, but I knew him at our meetings. I knew how his words resonated on the page. I knew how long it took him to write me a note upon the publication of a chapbook of my poems. It's a letter I treasure--because of the sentiments, the words.

One of Kirk's poems is about how his father didn't parse his life.

Father Again

All the men at the bar say, “What a damn shame.”
and you see your son lying totally paralyzed
except for his wit, his jokes about “retiring”
at nineteen, being “pensioned off” and “damn if
there isn’t much truth in that. How can it be
that your broken son seems stronger than all
the other sons you ever imagined? No more
bar room. No son of yours will be “a damn shame.”

from Some Poems, My friends by Norman Andrew Kirk

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."--Andre Gide

I think the passage of time is similar to the discovery of new lands. When my father retired from the New York City Department of Education he left a lifetime of teaching and mentoring. "Now, " he said, "I have time to study history." And he did—another land—one he returned to after a hiatus of years.

It’s not simple? Is it?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I am impressionable. I recently read a book written to rally all striving artists to draw and observe life with diligence, a journal, and a pen. The author suggested drawing every aspect of your life—from breakfast to bed.

“Create quick five-minute sketches.”

This morning as I poured my Go Lean dry cereal, Oat Flakes, a sprinkling of puffed millet, and added sliced banana into my most colorful cereal bowl, I wondered if the pattern of the bowl could be misinterpreted for yet another grain. And should I add the Rice milk before or after the sketch?

For a few minutes beyond the allotted time I observed my cereal bowl and attempted to recreate my breakfast in a small black artist’s journal.

Not too small because “Your drawing should not be cramped”.

Tonight I'll draw another of his suggested items—the medicine cabinet with its array of shapes. A rather unremarkable cabinet harboring no secrets, only a selection of items that pertain to personal hygiene—brushes, floss, mouthwash, underarm deodorant, moisturizers, and hair gel which I no longer use.

I'm not certain that I ever succumbed to a hairstyle held in place by gel. My hair during adolescence underwent several permutations— from short, curly, even bordering on tight coils, to a long below the waist ponytail.

The ponytail stage lasted from my last year in high school through three years of college. The hair style complemented a studied bohemian style —a skirt made of dyed burlap, a penchant for old union songs, and a satchel full of deep tomes.

When my ends split I had a drastic haircut —from a bob to a moderate crew cut.

Hair makes an impression. The Yankees legislated the length of a player's hair. The Red Sox didn't care.

Women's hair causes problems. It's tantalizing and may cause a good man to err. Some men wrote rules encased in religious verbiage:

"Women’s hair must be covered."

Perhaps I am not impressionable, only susceptible to projects. Perhaps everything sounds so intriguing that I want to dip my toe in and take the journey.

Tonight I'll sketch the items in the medicine cabinet.

Tomorrow I'll have a sunny side up egg for breakfast with a slice of turkey bacon.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

This is to....

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox…

William Carlos Williams

I want to say...”This is just to say…”

Today I read that only 15% of people under forty read the printed— hold in your hand get ink smudges on your finger’s newspaper. I assume the other 85% remain gloomed to some electronic device ranging from too large to move screen to a tiny handheld that also works as a telephone, music container, photo repository and game player. Or perhaps their newspapers appear on a Kindle where they can highlight, write notes and archive.

No stacks of unread or barely read sections, no rolled newspapers ready for use in the fireplace.

When I was in high school my ninth grade teacher, a woman who thrived on the Sunday New York Times regarding it as the secular Holy Scripture, taught the class how to properly fold the paper when riding the subway.

"You want to read the article in its entirety and not disturb your neighbor."
We all brought in a copy of the Times and learned how to fold correctly.

That same year I learned how to make my own serigraph silk screen frame. Now I can’t imagine stretching the silk correctly—taut and centered. Yet, I've never forgotten how to fold a large sized newspaper correctly, or lost the ability to follow a story from A 4 to A16—keeping the paper folded in its quarter size shape. Fold that in half and you are reading an eighth of the full page. A lifetime skill.

The newspapers in this country remain an endangered species. Zines replace periodicals and blogs proliferate. Someday the art of folding a newspaper will appear in a museum as a relic of a previous age.

This is just to say...

I passed on the list of 100 favorite mysteries of the twentieth century selected by the Independent Booksellers Association. Between indulging in other books I hope to work my way through these selections—especially the items listed as out of print. I feel a compulsion to read those books, but I've given up the idea of doing so alphabetically.

Once I thought that if I began a book I needed to continue on to the end, even if reaching the end meant trudging through weak writing, pasteboard characters, and conflicts no more engaging than the swatting of a barely aloft fly. Now I am the queen of the hatchet.

I equate the rereading of a book as a gift to myself. I linger with the words, the language, with characters I know. When I was below the age of double digits I read Nobody's Boy (Sans famille) by Malot. The long and convoluted plot offered hours of role-playing. Remi, the lead character, is catapulted from one heart-wrenching situation to another on his journey to find a place in the world. I visualized each chapter and, along with my friends Annie and Nina, role-played the scene. This scene called for real emoting.

Arthur's mother was English. Her name was Mrs. Milligan. She was a widow, and Arthur was her only son; at least, it was supposed that he was her only son living, for she had lost an elder child under mysterious
conditions. When the child was six months old it had been kidnaped, and they had never been able to find any trace of him. It is true that, at the time he was taken, Mrs. Milligan had not been able to make the necessary searches. Her husband was dying, and she herself was dangerously ill and knew nothing of what was going around her. When she regained consciousness her husband was dead and her baby had disappeared.

I want to say… “This is Just to Say”…

Friday, May 01, 2009


created in

To recall, to go back in time, to ferret out memories caught in the crevasses, to unwind the past on a new spool, to revise, to read the scroll backwards, to parse life into eras forces a conversation with the present.

Travel back in time. Hollywood loved the idea. Who wouldn't be enticed by spending an afternoon listening to Socrates? Were women in attendance? Good historians make me forget my immediate present. I relinquish the verity of the calendar. I've wandered in Mesopotamia, sat in a trench, drawn up a chair at the Yalta Conference, watched too many wars, and stood on a line waiting for food.

"Scientists have speculative theories in place, but technology hasn’t caught up yet to the point that they can be tested. Creating wormholes is one such theory. If space can be curved enough, and there is no theoretical reason why it can’t, then maybe a wormhole could be constructed to shortcut from one side of the universe to the other. If one of the mouths of the wormhole was made to travel very fast compared to the other one, then there would be a time difference between the two. Passing through the hole one way would allow you to move forwards in time and passing back the other way would allow you to move backwards in time. The main limitation with this method is that you would never be able to travel back to any date prior to the construction of the wormhole." Guy Micklethwait

Have I mentioned that my back hurts? I probably pulled a muscle when I turned too far playing golf. And I turned too far because I wanted to hit a longer drive. I wanted to watch that high arc moving down the fairway.

What would you change if you could go back? I'll not get caught with that useless conjecture. Change one thing and watch the other cards tumble. You can't return. You can only alter something in real time.

Annie suggested walking backwards. "Let's see who can walk the furthest."

Three of us started down the hill, taking care to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk. I watched the curb and counted my steps. How many steps to Minnie and Bernie's Grocery Store where my mother bought Farmer's Cheese? How many steps to the corner drugstore where the pharmacist reminded everyone that he had attended two years of medical school?

We stopped walking backwards when the street stopped for a roadway.

Last night my back and the mattress fought against one another. Nothing felt right and I thought I never slept, but my dream of riding an antelope negates that thought. But it was a fitful sleep.

We rode back and forth on the elevated train one entire summer afternoon.

Once I didn't backup a short story and it disappeared. It's hiding somewhere in my computer. Now I'll never know the end.

My characters took off relishing their release.
Independence is such a heady affair.