Friday, May 27, 2011

The mouth is a webcam into the psyche

The eyes are the windows to the soul. Really? This is one of those meaningless phrases that sounds good but does not advance anyone’s knowledge one iota. Few of us actually look into anyone’s eyes for any length of time. There are people who can’t stand being looked at. They will immediately say, “What? Is something wrong?” I knew the son of a famous sculptor who only talked to anyone sideways so you saw his ear. I was so distracted by this behavior I never heard anything he said.

More usable as a webcam into anyone’s psyche is the mouth. The mouth is a dead giveaway to all kinds of masked intentions. The mouth has it’s own wayward agenda and often engages in contrarian gymnastics. A lot of people smile while they tell you serious, even awful news. Remember Nixon who would be saying something very serious but his mouth was grinning. Besides “Freudian slips” saying one thing while meaning the opposite, the mouth purses (in disapproval) widens and turns down as in “good god is this person for real?”

Half of my dental problems were precipitated by the way I clenched my mouth during the night. The poor breathing, the nerve pain near my nose, the teeth misaligned. – all generated by years of clenching my mouth and forcing the teeth to grind. I should have found out why I did this night after night– was life one continuous attempt to unscrew a tight lid? The most difficult part of the body to relax is the mouth. If you totally relax your mouth it hangs open like a baby’s. Maybe we’re afraid to relax our mouths lest something escape unintentionally.

And then we come to the smile. Ah, the ubiquitous smile. I have a friend who discounts almost everything we swallow as true. She resents the constant exhortation to "smile." Smiling is something society has rammed down our throats as beneficial. She doesn't want to let a smile be her umbrella on a rainy day. Dogs don’t smile. Horses don’t smile. Smiling is a rote response necessitated by a phony social catechism, she says. True joy is met with silence, open-mouthed wonder not, repeat not a big grin. Sometimes I think she might be on to something. Sometimes smiling masks boredom or disinterest. When someone is telling you what he/she had for breakfast, you smile just to get it over with. When someone tells you a joke, you smile just to get it over with. When your best friend sells her book while yours is still unsold, you smile just to get it over with. Most smiles are just “get out of social jail cards.”

Laughing out loud is another arena. Hard laughter is an event to savor. I can remember most of the times I’ve laughed uncontrollably: the first was when I was ten years old watching a Danny Kaye movie. It might have been the Inspector General. I laughed so hard I literally fell out of my seat. Another instance was listening to a dog that said “I love you.” Yes, the dog said “I love you.”

Raucous laughter is often enjoyed by a group of people who are drinking. Group drinking seems to lower the threshold for what is funny. Once at my house, a group of drinking co-workers laughed hard because the UPS man had driven me home in his UPS truck to deliver a heavy package and everything he said they interpreted as kind of sexual and when I mentioned that the UPS man had opined that my driveway was too narrow for his truck to drive into, one young man laughed so hard he lost his breath and we had to resuscitate him.

Since having grandchildren I have found that babies can laugh uncontrollably at the oddest things. One of these babies engaged in hysterical laughing when he heard paper ripping or sneezing. Another would give out a deep gutteral laugh that threatened to make her throw up her lunch when she heard me end a sentence in a hard loud style like Regis Philbin. For some reason we all love to see babies laughing hard. It makes us laugh right along with them. If you ever need a good laugh, just go to U-Tube and look for “babies laughing.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The brain is like a toddler that you have to treat with tough love

I read all news about the brain avidly because I just can't figure out why my brain can be so alert one minute and fog up in the next. Also, I suspect most of my dilemmas could be easily solved by brain manipulation. I love the PBS infomercials (yes, that's what they are even though they are instructive) around fund drive times. The ones on the brain are fantastic. I was relieved to find that just by jiggling (yes, poking mildly back and forth) a part of the brain you can stop the circular thinking that makes you obsess about why the bank teller calls you by your first name as if they've known you socially and had you over. It turns out all you have to do is jiggle that brain spot and say: "This isn't true, just stop it." It sounds as if the brain is a toddler that you have to treat with tough love.
I've already written that one of the major signs of the onset of Alzheimer's is the inability to recognize sarcasm. When I visit my mother who is 99, I always say something sarcastic. "That pink angora top is perfect with the lime chevron patterned slacks." When she says, "the girls dress me," I know everything is okay.
There is an ingredient in addictive eating that's never talked about. It has to do with distracting the brain the same way you distract a cranky child. That's the "better thing" option. Just as a quick example, let's say you're about to dig into a plate of French fries and the phone rings with the news that you've won the lottery. Or even you've won a vacation in Hawaii. Or even your lawyer calls and says you've been awarded $20,000 because you slipped and fell in the supermarket on a puddle of spilled milk. Or even if your ex called and said: you're the best thing that ever happened to me and I'm still not over you. I maintain that you would forget those French fries. The attention would shift and you possibly couldn't even eat. Something must happen to the brain when an event or some news grabs our emotional and psychological attention and we have to focus exclusively on the event. If we could manipulate the brain to react that way at will, we would solve the food addiction problem. I know this sounds unscientific and possibly lunatic, but I think it happens.

I think about my weight almost non-stop and that is a crazy way to spend one's time. I would vote immediately for any candidate whose primary issues were the following: At-the-job quality daycare for working mothers (it is a disgrace that this very important issue has not been addressed aggressively). The second issue would be research on "brain manipulation" to control eating.

On the e-book front, my sales have increased dramatically through artificial stimulation. Since I've priced Best Friends at $0.99 it sells hundreds of copies per month. There is an on-going controversy in the e-book community regarding e-book pricing and finding the "sweet spot" to higher sales numbers. If I priced all of my books at $0.99, I could sell thousands of books every month but I can't get myself to do it. I'd rather the books sold on merit rather than price.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

#SampleSunday: "We love the desert life because it is ours."

(This is an excerpt from my epic historical novel, Daughters)
When he awoke alone, Samir looked at the tent ropes that held their horses but only his mare was there and he knew without looking further that his father had left him and returned home. Why? His heart throbbed with anger and confusion and he sat trembling.
The camp came to life with clouds of smoke from several cooking fires and little clumps of children, puppies, and lambs huddled together. Women sat on the dusty ground shaping rounds for bread. He had the doomed feeling that no one knew him.
He mounted his horse and guided it in the direction from which he had come, riding slowly, remembering the hidden guards with their carbines and half expecting to receive a bullet through the heart. Once free of the camp, he galloped confidently northwestward, elated by the thought of his escape. He would ride home.
After two hours, the landscape was so unchanging he began to doubt his direction and dismounted. He stroked the horse’s damp flesh, noting with a slump of will that the animal was tired and thirsty.
There was no sound save his own breathing. A bustard flew down in the distance to peck on the wooly red desert caterpillars and he was so thrilled to see another living thing that he watched until it flew away.
The sun was not moving in the expected arc to confirm his direction. He was lost and certain to perish from dehydration or starvation, if some wolf didn’t attack him first. He covered his face with both hands and cried.
There was a sound. His crying half obscured it, and it was so unexpected that he jumped mightily, which caused laughter. Laughter! Stranger than the laughter was the sight of who had laughed. A boy. Smaller than Samir and with no part of him showing – he was swaddled in the most suffocating costume – except a round glowing face and confident eyes. His short legs barely gripped the animal.
“Where did you come from?” asked Samir.
“Same as you. From the camp of the Rualas.” His voice was very high.
He’s just a child, thought Samir. “You’ve been following me?” Now we shall both die, he thought ruefully. This baby boy and myself.
“Of course. You’re in my keep. I’m responsible for your welfare,” he said loftily. “Why are you crying?” he asked with chagrin, as if it were a reflection on him.
Samir ignored him. “Where is my father?”
“Your father left before dawn to return to your home.” Samir swallowed hard. Here was proof positive of his sentence. “Why did you ride out this morning?” asked the boy with a quizzical frown.
“I was returning home.”
The boy struggled with what he had to say. “You are riding in the wrong direction.” There was an embittered silence during which Samir adjusted the straps of his food pack and refused to look at the boy. “You are meant to remain with us. My name is Marwan and you, I know, are Samir. Come,” he coaxed, “let’s return.” Grudgingly he followed the little horseman who took off confidently.
There was still only the beige vastness but now the sun illuminated one portion of the sky from beneath dark clouds that threatened rain. Imminent moisture imbued the air with incredible freshness and Samir took huge gulps. The knot in his chest loosened. At one point, Marwan stopped and pointed down to some animal tracks that appeared to have been made by a large paw and presently they saw the owner, a huge black cat, licking himself in the shade of a stunted bush.
“Panther,” said Marwan, his childish face full of concern. He held out a palm to keep Samir from continuing, rummaged in his garments and brought out a Mauser. With little preparation he aimed and shot the animal in the throat. “Hullus,” he said softly. It was done.
He brought out a long knife that he plunged into the animal’s chest with surprising strength. “Would you care for a paw as a souvenir?” he asked Samir.
Samir shook his head. He was amazed by the marksmanship. The smug indifference he had felt was no longer appropriate. Marwan had saved them from certain danger for the panther could have easily overtaken them. From time to time he stole a disbelieving look at the courageous little fellow and rode with him obediently to safety.
In the days that followed, Marwan was his tie to life and the only buffer from desperate loneliness and homesickness. He was four months younger and half a head shorter than Samir with six fine braids that reached his hips. He had to guide his horse with his thighs for his legs were too short but he was amazingly agile and a fine shot. He ate with his family but otherwise seemed to live entirely without supervision even though he was the sheik’s son.
Marwan was unbelieving when he learned that Samir had spent the last six years learning to read and write, to handle a knife and fork and to play soccer. He was shocked that he didn’t know how to make a fire, slaughter a lamb, hunt game, fire a rifle, or use the rhumb, the knife that was like an eleventh finger to Marwan.
From dawn to dusk, the little wild creature taught Samir the skills of survival. “You must know how to shoot,” he would say seriously as if danger were at hand. They worked with flat pebbles and a crude sling aiming for the wooden pegs that held down the tent ropes. When they progressed to the Mauser – Marwan’s most precious possession – Samir was already a decent marksman. Marwan showed him the likely places for game and how to stalk and kill. There was a precise spot on the neck and a proper angle at which to plunge the knife. One needed strength. One needed a fierce mental attitude. “The idle and cowardly lose their wealth,” piped the boy in his high voice. Samir wanted to smile because the lofty words hardly went with the stature. “The brave and energetic prosper.”
“Why do you choose to live like this? Samir asked. It had occurred to him that Marwan’s father was wealthier than many of the villagers, yet this life held relentless hardship. They slept on the stony ground, chilled to the bone by night and suffocated during the day. Water was precious and rare for these were the driest days of the year and it would be two months before the rains began to replenish the water holes. Food was monotonous. The frothy salty camel milk fresh from the udder was repulsive but there was nothing else and he reluctantly began to tolerate it. The occasional meat was cooked so rare he couldn’t touch it yet the young men fought for the raw heart of any animal that was slaughtered. They guzzled the blood believing it gave them strength and virility. “Don’t you yearn for a different life?”
“Where else would I live? I was born here as was my father and his father before him.”
“But it’s so difficult. There’s a much easier way.” As he said this, anxiety rose in him. Would his father come back to claim him? And when?
Marwan laughed. “Easier for whom? We welcome the hardships of the desert. We love them.”
“But why?”
He answered with an innocence that made Samir ashamed for questioning. “We love the desert life because it is ours.”
But it is not mine, thought Samir with sadness.
One early morning, after the moon had set but while it was still dark, Marwan shook him. “We must ride into the wilderness,” he said and handed Samir a waterskin and some dried dates. Each rode a dromedary while two riderless mares cantered at their side and held by lines to the camel girths. A few miles out of the camp, Marwan, rifle in hand, flung himself from the camel onto the back of his mare, unslipped the line and raced off in a cloud yelling wildly. Samir made three attempts to do the same but fell twice. He couldn’t ride bareback and found himself gripping with his thighs for dear life. He reached Marwan who was casually pitching stones at a pile of bleached animal bones.
“I thought you were in danger,”’ shouted Samir.
“You were supposed to ride as if danger were near,” said Marwan coolly.
“I almost broke my back. Who ever heard of riding a blasted horse without a saddle! And jumping on him at that!”
“It’s the way it is done.”
“It’s a good way to kill yourself.”
“It’s the way we ride for the gazu, the raid,” he said stubbornly. “It is the way we move our camps. It is the way we protect our grazing areas and our flocks. In order to survive in the desert you must be ready to move swiftly from the camel to the war mare. It is the only way to be a man. We must try it again until it is as easy as walking.”
Samir rubbed his back. He thought: I’m never going to be in a raid. I’m not going to move a camp. One day I will return to my home. Yet Marwan was already retying his line to try again. They worked all day on the maneuver and Samir was enticed by the spectacular look of the transfer when it was accomplished properly. Using the left wrist to launch himself, Marwan lifted both legs up and to the right then swung gracefully between the two animals and landed squarely on the back of the mare, unhitching the line at the same instant he spurred the horse. Then came the wild yell of freedom. The thrill of speed atop the most splendid horses in the world, the “drinkers of the wind.”
They rode back to camp at dusk, weary and hungry. Marwan sang all the way. “We sing on a long ride,” he said. “It makes us feel more cheerful. And it comforts the animals.”
A few days later, Marwan awoke him again, but this time with more food and water than was necessary for a day. “We’re going to hunt the wolves that are attacking our herds,” he said. “Will you ride with us?”
“Of course.” This was the first real occasion to use all his new experience. They were part of a large party of young men on their horses. Several of them were armed with a slender lance. All of them chanted or yodeled merrily as they rode. Marwan was fondling the Mauser, which he wore in his belt.
“Will you shoot the wolves with that?” Samir pointed to the gun all too aware that he lacked such a weapon.
“No.” Marwan smiled slowly, as if the question was preposterous. “One doesn’t use a Mauser on wolves. We use the rumh, the lance. Here,” he handed him one of the slender bamboo spears that were about fifteen feet long with a triangular steel head. “You carry it sideways and you spear your wolf like this.” He leaned to the side and with a single mighty thrust embedded the spear in the ground. “But I carry this gun with me always. There are enemies of my father who would like to have me dead.” His face grew somber and briefly there was fear in his eyes. “Before I was born, he lost three sons.”
Several of the men with rifles had ridden ahead to the foothills to cut off the retreat of the wolves into the mountains. At last these men flushed out two wolves and Marwan and Samir gave chase. “You must get ahead of him to thrust,” warned Marwan. Suddenly Samir felt the front right leg of his mare give way and he went headlong over its neck, landing face down. Marwan had to return for him and he felt mortified. “It’s not your fault.” said Marwan. “Moles have undermined the ground. Look at Jebra!” He pointed gleefully to one of the slaves. “His horse disposed of him as well. He took a toss. And look there, another one.” Samir felt a pudgy hand dusting off his chest and his embarrassment diminished.
They mounted again and rode about twelve miles to a spot where, it seemed, everyone was off in a different direction chasing a wolf with a lance. Samir was thrilled when he spotted a wolf and went for his bushy tail. His horse was as eager to follow the bandit and together they galloped madly, finally overtaking the animal. With an exhilarating burst of energy, Samir executed a stab so violent that his spear acted as a vaulting pole and threw him in the air. Fortunately, the ground was soft and he was unharmed. To his amazement, the wolf was impaled through its middle. Marwan was grinning wildly. “You have the brave heart of a lion, Samir,” he said soberly. “I wish to make you my blood brother.” He caught a few drops of the blood from Samir’s scraped arm and rubbed it between his eyes. Then he clasped him in a fierce embrace.
In the weeks that followed Samir’s passion for the Bedouin life caught fire and he became an obsessed pupil. He forgot about reading and writing. He had come in October and now it was February. He couldn’t recall his father’s face or his mother’s or that of the half sister he loved. His old life was no more than a meaningless dream. The desert was everything. His beautiful dark hair fell below his shoulders and he allowed Marwan’s sister to braid it into lovelocks. He grew at least three inches and knew by the coming of spring that he had passed his thirteenth birthday. The muscles in his arms and back and legs were taut and had he had a mirror he would not have recognized the wiry boy he had become.
He grew to love the feeling of riding fast, his long locks and head cloth fluttering, his camel’s hair cloak – a precious gift – flapping, a carbine balanced on his lap. He could vault onto the back of his horse with a single swing over its flank and twist of his body. He learned not to expect his stomach to be full. No future delicacy would ever taste as good as a mix of wild honey with a dollop of goat butter floating on top spread on freshly baked herb cakes. Best of all, he learned to love the sweet stillness of night and the silver sand reflecting that most magical vision – starlight.
Often he and Marwan sat in on the councils where the tribal heads planned their strategy and settled squabbles and conducted business. The nomadic tribes bartered their camels, wool, cheese and butter for tent fittings and saddles, cloth and foodstuffs. When the fine days of spring finally arrived, the mood of the camp changed dramatically. There was laughter and singing and playfulness.
“From now on we will be on the move,” said Marwan one magnificent morning and the next day the women pulled up the tent posts, rolled up the unwieldy cloths and loaded them on the camels. The entire tribe with their flocks and herds and horses began drifting to their permanent watering holes. The rain had awakened the earth all at once creating an overnight sensation. A rich green haze tinged with silver was the backdrop for delicately colored blooms. The camels and flocks are greedily making up for the barren months.
When they made camp the young men went about the real business of the Bedouin life – the gazu, the raid for camels, the true measure of a man’s wealth. They were now full of purpose, eager to make the forays in the stealth of night, exhilarated when they unhobbled the camels silently and then drove them home, half triumphant, half fearful. Samir saw a change come over Marwan. He was no longer the gay companion. He was itching to be on a mission. He wanted to ride his mare fast and find an enemy, any enemy against which he could prove himself.
“But suppose he kills you?” asked Samir, who could not appreciate the desire for something so dangerous. One moment of glory that could snuff out your life. He was frightened but wouldn’t dare admit it.
“They would not shoot me nor I them,” Marwan said. “Raiding is honorable. Only common robbers kill you.”
When it came time to join the raid, Samir rode without euphoria. There were certain things about the Bedouin life that would always remain a mystery to him. The certainty of purpose – there was no indecision in their character.
He didn’t shrink from danger – that would have been unthinkable – but he didn’t take pleasure in riding over rocks and rubble to outwit their pursuers or crawling on his belly to reach the prey unnoticed. At night, when they made camp and lit a fire with ghada sticks and that magical stillness settled over the violet-colored dunes, he yearned to go home and resume his life. Homesickness, held at bay for so long, now wrecked his powers of concentration. He dreamed of home and his father. He held imaginary conversations with his sister speaking aloud when they were riding fast and no one could hear him.
“How long am I meant to stay with you?” he asked Marwan one day.
“You could have left anytime,” said Marwan but he seemed surprised and hurt by the question.
“You mean I could have left right away?” Samir was shocked.
“Yes. If you really had wanted to.”
“But you didn’t tell me that.”
“But you never asked.”
It would have been the most natural thing in the world to say right then that he wanted to go home now but he knew Marwan would take it personally and he couldn’t hurt his friend. He would tell him soon but not right away.
The next night Marwan awoke him before midnight and coaxed him to ride with him alone on a raid. “We’ll bring back a camel each. We can do it.”
“Your mother and father would be heartsick to find you gone alone, Marwan,” he said stalling for time. It was a foolhardy idea.
“If you don’t wish to go with me, I will go alone,” he said.
“Wait and go with the men.” Samir tried to sound casual and reasonable although he didn’t feel casual at all.
“If you don’t go with me, I will go alone,” said Marwan defiantly and Samir rose wearily from his cozy sheepskin and cursed the lack of supervision for this hotheaded boy.
“I will go,” he said, hoping that they would find nothing and return to camp by morning.
They rode for three hours without seeing any campfires or other signs of life. As dawn was approaching, Marwan drew rein and came up next to Samir. “Now we must hide or we will be seen and our mission will be obvious.”
“Why is it obvious?” said Samir. “We could be just two boys with nothing on our minds.”
Marwan was insulted. “That’s impossible.”
They dismounted and hid out behind a sand dune and had just pulled out a fistful of cheese when Samir saw a shadow cross in front of him. Two savage figures approached and stood just a few feet away.
“How did you arrive,” said Marwan, stunned.
“We didn’t arrive,” said one of the men derisively. “We were here all along.”
Samir remembered something Marwan had told him. Unmounted wayfarers are usually robbers and murderers.
“What do you want? Asked Marwan and his voice was tremulous.
“You tell us,” said one man and laughed.
“Ask God,” said the other.
“What tribe do you belong to?” persisted Marwan.
“Beni Nufud,” replied the man and this time both laughed.
This insolent answer seemed to settle it for Marwan. He pulled out his Mauser and shot twice felling both the startled men. However, one of them, his face full of rage, was able to pull out his own pistol and shot back. Marwan cried out defiantly, “La! No!” and his boyish hand shot out to ward off the bullet that exploded in his face. Before the robber could shoot again, Samir grabbed the Mauser and emptied it in both the men. His heart seemed to be racing up and down his body and found no spot that could accommodate its violent beating.
He felt uncontrollable anger toward Marwan. “You little fool. You little fool. Why did you have to come here? Why? Why? He shook his blood brother willing him to respond. Marwan just lay still his life fluids soaking into his clothes. He rode back to camp with Marwan propped in front of him, cradled in his arms. It was slow going but he couldn’t have left him there alone.
Throughout the ride, he crooned the cheerful songs Marwan had taught him. He must hear me, he thought. He must. He didn’t have a clear memory of all that happened next. Only that they wanted to take the body from him and he resisted with all his might. He felt horribly responsible for the tragedy. He should have asked to go home and this would have distracted Marwan from his quest for danger. He shouldn’t have given in to Marwan and ridden with him. He should have persuaded him to stay at the camp. He could have saved his friend. Over and over, he heard that startled cry, “La! No!” and saw that small palm thrust out, pushing death away.
Within days he was returned to his family. He asked for Marwan’s curved knife, his rhumb, and kept it close to him day and night. It had the smell of Marwan and the sweat of his hand on the handle. It was the last thing Samir touched at night and the first in the morning. Even in later years, when his months with the Bedouin were nothing more than a distant memory, touching the knife gave him comfort.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Giving in to despair is crucial

It was a miracle today and I saw again how things can turn around so quickly. Yesterday, I was sure my mind was not going to behave or settle down or even clear up or want to do anything more than just be muddled.

But then, really with no warning, just this dull acceptance that this was going to be the new status quo, I started looking for information to send out a query. I found what I needed and from there gathered all the other stuff and then I began to compose a few paragraphs and from that I tried to arrange the beginning of the piece I wanted to do.

There is a point where you see no way out and you give in to despair and only then do things turn around. I believe that giving in to despair might be necessary. It makes you believe that there is an order and if we could just find the key to it, we would be all right. I don’t know why anyone wants to be more than just all right. Being all right is the ideal state. It doesn’t need news. It doesn’t need approval. I’m all right.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#SampleSunday: Excerpt from Nothing To Lose

(This is the bleakest season of April's life. Can she ever recover?)

With her thirty thousand dollars and her cozy, dark apartment, April felt temporarily safe. She didn’t have to think about anyone hating her and she didn’t have to fear any disasters. All the worst things had happened. Many days, she would grab her coat and run into the street, walking briskly as if to some important destination. Then, realizing she had no place to go, she would stand in the middle of the sidewalk, men cursing her stupidity for blocking their path.
It was a remarkable winter, bright and cheerful with many days of blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It snowed frequently and the light reflecting off the snow added to the brightness. She didn’t go out much and the sunshine was a reproach. To be indoors on a sunny day in America was worse than Communism.
Every day she awoke with the resolve to do something. Today would be the day she would begin eating sensibly. She would even start out by cutting up a bagful of carrots and celery sticks to munch on when her habits got the better of her. By eleven o’clock, she had begun nibbling. First a piece of toast with cottage cheese. That was wholesome. Commendable. She dribbled a smidgen of honey over the cheese so she wouldn’t be left with a cheesy taste in her mouth. Still okay.
Ten minutes after the toast and cheese and the smidgen of honey, she was back in the Pullman kitchen. She felt like something juicy. A ripe pear or an apple and while she was there a few peanuts – a nice complementary taste and texture. Thirst took over but the idea of water alone wasn’t appealing. Perhaps a milk shake, something frothy and sweet. She had kept the blender.
Her jaw ached and her head buzzed. She could feel the chemical changes taking place inside her, the crossed signals, the weariness, the torpor and ultimately, about four o’clock in the afternoon – that began the loneliest time of the day – a stone-like immobility. She would sit there in her giant club chair, unable to move or think. She did this almost every day for the next eight months.
One morning she awoke after sleeping fourteen hours and didn’t know what day of the week it was or what hour of the day. She went into the bathroom returned to bed and flipped on the television. A talk show host was interviewing a black woman who had given birth to Siamese twins and they had been successfully separated. It was a poignant story but after listening for one or two minutes, April heard only gibberish. She tried to concentrate but all she got was a garbled sound.
Her first desire was to leave the apartment. It was claustrophobic. She had been alone for four days and wanted to be surrounded by people. She put on a dress, a pretty print made of a cheap synthetic picked out at Macy’s. It was cut in an a-line and had once fit well. Now it bunched up in the back above the hips and was indecently short. She put on a raincoat to hide the shortness. It was not raining. It was the perfect season for a suit. She had always admired women who wore well-cut suits with ironed dimity blouses that buttoned up the back. Sara Davis’ mother had worn suits all through school and was now an assistant to the mayor. She had gone back to school – Harvard or Yale or some other big deal school.
In her dress and raincoat and sneakers without socks, she walked from the Thirties to Fifth Avenue and then to 50th Street. It was close enough to lunchtime to make the sidewalks crowded. The sun really hurt her eyes and made her want to close them but she couldn’t just stand on a busy sidewalk with her eyes closed. She fished into her large shoulder-strap bag for sunglasses but her eyes still hurt so she stepped into Saks Fifth Avenue where it was cool and dim. She would look around at the merchandise until she felt like going home again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sample Sunday: Martha, the drudge and Mary, the gadfly. 5-A and 8-B

Excerpt from One Hundred Open Houses

In the Bible, there are two sisters who are frequently visited by Jesus. Martha is the practical one, always cooking or cleaning. Mary, has a “life is short’ attitude and ignores the chores to socialize and have a good time.
8-B, the first apartment I saw at the Jardinium, was Mary. There was an actual apartment to view but it was secondary. This is the sort of twenty-first century building that capitalizes on the idea of cocooning (we all want to be coddled at home and not have to go anywhere to do anything). The apartments are marketed with amenities that most of us have never thought we wanted but now we do: heated floors, soaking tubs, rain showers. (I think the “rain shower” has taken the concept of a watering can with a humungous broad spout and substituted it for the regular showerhead.) These concept buildings separate the population into two categories: people who want personalized shelter and people who simply want to be given a lifestyle. The Jardinium provided a yoga room, a cafĂ©, pool (as in with an 8 ball), pool (as in swimming) garden, gym, and playroom for kids. You could spend the entire day using the amenities and never face your life upstairs. You could practically live in the public spaces and rent out your apartment. The building was a condominium, meaning there was no punishing co-op board to monitor everything you did to maximize the million and a half you dropped on 1200 square feet and the punishing $8500 a month it took to cover the mortgage and maintenance.
Once you got to your unit, here’s what greeted you. A small kitchen tucked into a corner of a large but not lavish living room with a counter surround for separation. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, (one with a double sink). It’s been noted that an extra bathroom almost doubles the price of an apartment and that definitely seemed true of 8-B. The living room window wall went from floor to ceiling except for a couple of feet at the top and bottom. The agent kept stressing that it was dramatic space and ideal for entertaining. I tried to see it from her point of view but it did not feel like home. I’ve got to forget butcher block and Amana and get used to marble, granite and Sub-Zero. I agreed to see another apartment two floors below but it was more of the same.
5-A was two blocks south from 8-B in a smaller building. 5-A was the earnest Martha – little glamour but lots of value. You could live in 5-A for a monthly outlay of $1914 including mortgage and maintenance. You didn’t have a pool or a gym or a doorman but you had a live-in super who could potentially be more helpful than a doorman. You also had an on-site laundry, a bike room and access to a garden. I didn’t personally see the garden but the agent assured me there was one. 5-A had only one-third of the space of 8-B in the Jardinium, 400 square feet, but it was less than one fifth the price, 279,000. The best thing about 5-A besides the value, were the parquet floors - solid oak with a natural matte finish in perfect condition. The living room had two medium sized windows. The kitchen and bath had modest but clean fixtures and appliances and were both windowed. The reason 5-A was priced so low had to do with the bright blue paint on the walls and the odd wall treatments that muddied its possibilities and almost gave you a headache. If a home stager had prepared 5-A with a new paint job and better lighting it would be on the market for 379,000. As it was now, you had to look beyond the flaws to see that you could live in a decent place without – as the fact sheet said – “paying an arm and a leg.” You also had to walk up a few flights. All right, seven.
It was getting late and I decide to head home. On the drive, I’m aware that there’s been a definite shift. Evaluating those apartments and the lives that can be lived there has forced me to peek at my own life My life is like food I have purchased that clearly says, ‘refrigerate after opening,’ and I keep glancing at it on the shelf and think, ‘oh yeah, I really should refrigerate that.’ By the time I get home, I’m definitely uncomfortable and begin reading a hypnosis book I picked up at one of the booths of The Home and Garden Show. On the first page, after a bunch of disclaimers (check with your shrink, etc.), the author asks: What do you want to change? For about thirty seconds I’m elated. Maybe this is going to be easy. I can think of 20 things I want to change including my height, my weight and the plumpness of my upper lip, but I doubt that hypnosis can make me grow taller. Just to pick something, I write. I want to stop not writing. How long have you been doing it? I think back – oh my god, it’s been ten years. Why did you stop?
Because I was disoriented after my divorce. Because writing is hard. This is not going to be easy and it’s too late at night for this confrontation. Before I get into bed, I take a look at myself in the half mirror and wince (I love that word – it’s like a mental pinch) at the weight, the little puffy things under the eyes, puffy, yet shallow. I always think that if I could fill in those little gullies I would regain the innocent irresistible stare of youth. And, I could probably fill them in without much trouble with all the stuff they have now.
A few days ago, I saw Lidia Bastianich, the chef on TV who says ‘caramelized’ every few minutes and drizzles olive oil over everything but is so sweet with her mother. Lidia relates that every year she hires a boat and she and her three girlfriends go sailing on the Adriatic. She gives the viewers a snippet of the trip. We see Lidia on the boat, in her swimsuit, having a really good time with her girlfriends. I want to get some girlfriends like Lidia’s. It looks like Lidia has the perfect fulfilled life if you can ignore the absence of Mr. Bastianich. I have given up on too much. I have said “okay” to the absence of nurturing work and real intimacy and a reliance on love as a hub of life. Even though I’m in my sixties and a little overweight and can’t sleep without some media noise, I still have something important to do. Doing it will set my life straight and make me less afraid. But it’s not going to happen here in this familiar place, playing it safe.
I think of that soft orderly apartment I had seen a few weeks ago. The 9th floor, the G line of 242 East 39th street. The easy flow of the space, entering into that almost square room but with just enough of a vestibule to give it the illusion of delayed entry. The row of four small windows across the back wall letting in a contemplative half-light. A French door to the right leading to a one-lane terrace, no big planted deal, just a nice place to go early in the morning and see what kind of a day it was. The decent size bedroom if you ignored the thin mattress and bed that looked as if someone had died there. The terrace ran along the bedroom wall providing another row of four small windows. A place like that would set my life on a better track. The shock of transplantation – leaving this idyllic stultifying village street and rushing back to the wonderful dirty noisy city. I need an emotional jolt. I need to go to the unfamiliar. I’ll start writing again. I’ll make some money. I’ll test my courage. I will go to the city every weekend and see the open houses. It has to be the right place and I will know it when I find it. I need my own 9-G. I need to find out who I can be.

Friday, May 6, 2011

JoeThePlumber is following me on Twitter.

I have no idea if it's the famous "Joe The Plumber" or just a plumber named Joe. Every day I get at least six strangers who want to follow me on Twitter. I may be on a Twitter Needy List. Sometimes I look at the bios and decide to follow them, too. If the bio says, "I like shopping, chatting with my friends and riding in the car with my boyfriend," I know it's not my demographic.

But back to Joe, this is a good time to talk about plumbing because if I had it to do all over again, I would ONLY marry a plumber. There is nothing that puts fear in my bones more than a leaky pipe. It doesn't help that Holmes on Homes, the always critical, sometimes avuncular superhero of HGTV says: "where there's a leak, there's a flood." That is simply not true. I had a leak under a kitchen sink for weeks - maybe months and if I kept a bucket under it, no flood occurred. Floods only took place when I forgot to empty the bucket.

This recent plumbing problem helped me to discover that I have a lot of hidden fears about plumbing that are clogging up my subconscious. Here are my thoughts when I think about plumbing: I'm not sure where to turn off the water in my house if something bursts and water begins to cascade throughout my rooms. I don't even feel comfortable looking under the sink. I see orange or blue knobs that are probably for turning off the water at the site of the leak but I am sure that if I turn them they will break off in my hand and water will begin to cascade throughout my house forever. All my thoughts end with "water will begin to cascade throughout my house forever."

This leaky pipe story has a happy ending because last week, my middle child came for a visit with his wife and new baby. As anyone knows a family with a new baby is not getting enough sleep or free time. What they are getting is a lot of rude awakenings, metaphorical and real. Therefore, it was only when they were about to leave that I had the nerve to ask him to take a look at the leak under the kitchen sink. We went through all of the quick-fix scenarios: that white stretchy tape, the black stretchy tape (Xtreme tape), plumbers putty, blah blah blah. Nothing had worked. The little droplet of water would just find a different route to exit. I came to respect that little drop of water for its determination. My middle child left for the local hardware store and returned with a complicated stainless fitting that had a small hole at one end and a bigger one at the other. He asked me to turn off the water and then unscrewed the existing thread and the two pipes came apart. This would have sent me into cardiac arrest if I were alone. He said to me: The upper pipe is thinner than the lower pipe so we have to uncouple the pipes and put in new connections. Then he asked me for a hack saw (that set my pulse up a few notches) then he said, "never mind." After cleaning both pipes with steel wool, wrapping the ends in the white stretch tape and then re-uniting them with the help of the new double-holed fitting, all was serene. We turned on the water. It came out of the faucet. Nothing came out down below.

I love my middle child.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Message Board aftermath of Sirius/XM merger (Found this in my files but it bears repeating.)

(When the Sirius Radio and XM merger occurred, I went to the message boards hoping to get some insight into a stock I owned. Some of the names have been changed to protect ... I don’t know who.)

Merger approved between @#$% & Shinola -- Dr.Indignation, 1 min ago

RE:Merger approved between @#$% &Shinola -- Kookoofor$,2 min ago
Between yelling and your limited vocabulary I see
why your (sic) on most peoples ignore list.

RE:Merger approved between @#$%&Shinola--Dr.Indignation 2 min ago
Don’t get mad at me. I was just trying to
cheer you up.

My twin is ready to strangle me -- Ltdintelligence, 3 min ago
This is not good.

RE: My twin is ready to strangle me -- vegantrader, 4 min ago
Selling breast milk for food. Must be eighteen

Bullish Inverted Hammer -- Cheerybastard, 4 min ago
Hello there. There is hope for longs after all.
This one-day pattern needs confirmation with a
nice gap tomorrow.

Re: Tell Me Again How Screwed I am -- transgenderosie, 5 min ago
Your @#$%ed royally. Shame. Hee-hee

Time to break the chains of the short Devils -- fagcrazy, 5 min ago
Let the music play. Sirius/XM will rise!

I’m a new bagholder and proud of it -- nospinebob, 6 min ago

How can someone make fun of longs -- crybaby, 7 min ago
I’m down almost 40 K today and it hurt to see
people laughing at this. All I ask for is respect.
And a spanking

RE: How can someone make fun of longs -- nurserachit, 8 min ago
Ha Ha. Bend over and take it like a man.

RE: How can someone make fun of longs -- nurserachit, 8 min ago
Send a picture of your wife.

I see dead people -- scarybastard, 9 min ago
A prophet is never recognized in his own town

Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday -- whiningfor$,10 min ago
Everyone thinks Cramer was wrong on Suri/xm.
Cramer knew exactly what’s going on.

RE:Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--nurserachit, 12 min ago
It’s Siri, you moron. Suri is the Cruise kid.
Go back to your hut.

RE: Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--whiningfor$,13 min ago
I will not forget. I will remember like I remember
the Alamo, Pearl Harbor and 911.

Re:Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--dingoateyourbaby,14 min ago
Damn you, Cramer

RE:Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--whiningfor$,15 min ago
Cramer is a d#ck.

RE:Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--whiningfor$,15 min ago
Cramer is a d#ck

RE: Let’s not forget what Cramer did yesterday--whiningfor$,15 min ago
Cramer is a d#ck

You will feel better -- dr.isin, 16 min ago
You will feel better if you stop venting.
Mel meant you no harm.

Confessions of an @#$%tard -- yaledropout, 18 min ago
I believed in Mel Karmazin. Mel made
idiots out of us. I admit it. Will you?

RE:Confessions of an @#$%tard -- dr.indignation, 20 min ago
You mean the Yale Lock Company, liar. No
sympathy from me. Learn your lesson and
move on.

RE: Should we blame Cramer, Mel and Others?--whiningfor$,21 min ago
I got kids starting college and need money badly

RE:Should we blame Cramer, Mel and Others?--easymoolah,22 min ago
I sent three e-mails to Mad Money. They sent them
back. Said, try again later.

RE: Should we blame Cramer, Mel and Others--nurserachit, 23 min ago
Mel sold you out, retard. It’s over for you.
Get help.

Will close above $2.50 today -- cheerybastard, 25 min ago
Anybody want to predict the close?

RE: Will close above $2.50 today -- nurserachit, 27 min ago
Stop using drugs, buddy.

Christmas and NFL start soon -- cheerybastard, 28 min ago
Many will get Sirius for Xmas and for NFL.
We don’t like Mel right now but think about Xmas.
Keep your heads high and don’t jump.

RE: Christmas and NFL start soon -- paidbasher, 30 min ago
Yahoo shows o.o price for siri. Ha, ha!
There goes Santa Claus.

Remember the old days -- yeoldetrader, 32 min ago
Siri was kicking XM’s ass.
I was making mucho dinero.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a
sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible
-- dr.isin, 35 min ago
Admiral Yamato when he bombed Pearl Harbor.
Go Siri longs!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

SampleSunday: Excerpt from Tough As Nails (a sort of crime novel in progress)

I had to go to a shrink in order to drive and I should have gone to one for cooking, too. Now I drive anywhere except the Cross-Bronx Expressway which is terrifying. I’m speeding toward Exit 53 on the LIE with the radio blasting Paul Simon singing that he's going to graceland, graceland. In Memphis, Tennessee. That shows how unafraid I’ve become. Once off the Expressway I pull over to look at the Nassau County Street Atlas for the address on the police report. What do you know? There’s no Tenniscourt Lane in Rockville Center. There’s a Tenniscourt Road in Cove Neck and a Tenniscourt in Garden City but no Tenniscourt Lane in the entire county. I drive to a small shopping center and ask a deli counterman for a phone book to look up Alfred Gordon. There are seven A. Gordons in the Nassau book and four Alfreds. None of them live in Rockville Center and needless to say on Tenniscourt Lane.
I return to my car with a funny feeling seeping down. If the guy who hit Tiffany gave a mythical address, then he has a phony driver’s license and the whole case is murky as hell and about a thousand times more interesting.
My pituitary gland revs up to pump out about a pint of adrenaline into my bloodstream. I forget about Butts and Guts and drive back to the police station. Could they have made a mistake? Joe Teneca is coming down the stairs as I pull in. I know he’s going to be cranky over what I’m going to ask him but I ask anyway.
“When you filled out the report on the guy who hit Charlene’s dog, what ID did he give you?”
“A license.”
“Nothing else?”
“No.” he says benignly, “a license. Some prissy ass address as I remember.”
“Tenniscourt Lane?” I don’t mention that he missed checking the phony license. I have a long way to go with Joe Teneca.
“Yeah,” he says sarcastically, “but you can’t arrest a guy because you don’t like his address.” He laughs and continues down the stairs on his way home to eat with his wife and kids. For about fifteen seconds I would give my right arm to be Mrs. Teneca smushing up some chopped meat and onions and slopping ketchup over it and sticking it into the oven for my family’s dinner. Which goes to show how little you can trust your emotions.
I go home, pull off my vintage slip/skirt and put on some Gap biking shorts and a faded purple pocket tee. I turn the TV on to the six o’clock Jeopardy on cable and turn the sound off so I can call the seven A. Gordons and the four Alfred Gordons. Jeopardy is having the college tournament. There’s a Princeton guy, a Harvard guy and a Grinnell girl. The Grinnell girl answers the first three questions correctly making
Alex get mushy.
In answer to my question, “Do you drive a blue Audi,” the first A. Gordon answers thus: “How’d you like this phone up your ass?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You got me out of the shower to ask what car I drive? You telemarketing assholes should be gassed.”
The second A. Gordon is a woman. The third A. Gordon has an answering machine with such detailed opening remarks there’s little chance he would have a phony license
I un-mute Jeopardy for thirty seconds to listen to the Princeton guy answer something about the Baltics which he gets right without a blink. I never reach the fourth A. Gordon because about twenty police sirens start wailing outside my door.