Friday, October 7, 2016

in the dying light [originally published in October 2012]


       The finches are back. A flitting, chattering flock of tiny green birds appears in the elm outside my office windows at the ragged edge of every summer and stays as long as the camouflage does. As the ground cools and the leaves fade from Pippin Apple Green to Dirty Yellow, there are a few days of Finch Match. I still can’t fathom how bending light changes color or, for that matter, how light bends; I leave that to the finches. I do wonder where they go from here.

         Before I had any familiarity with death except as a concept, I believed that good people died good deaths and when someone would die was fairly predictable. The idea probably came from novels. A baby dying was a rare and terrible occurrence; most people who died were old and died of, well, old age. Young men died in wars, young women died of tuberculosis or heartbreak or during childbirth (I was big on the pathos genre). The patchwork of my early religious education, I think, reinforced the idea: if you strive to be a good (rule-following, god-fearing) person, you will be rewarded not only by going to heaven when your life is over, you’ll be more likely to pass through the vale of tears peacefully in your sleep, like getting to open one present on Christmas Eve before the big ta-da. I shucked off the robe of religion long ago but for decades I held onto the romantic illusion that death was visited, like reward points, on the deserving – or not.

         When people I loved began to die, it was in the usual way: one grandparent, then another, then my dad, then my mother, at the ages, respectively, of 92, 88, 73, 76 and of ordinary, fatal diseases. I was almost 40 years old – recently married to Mr. Forte, my kid almost in college – when Old Carl the First left us and was very focused and busy with my work and new family.  I’d been a civil lawsuit court reporter for 15 years by then, listening to testimony about grisly injuries and wrongful deaths caused by someone’s negligence (on freeways, in hospitals, in plane crashes).  Working in that environment effectively (picture the poker face of a reporter or a judge in a courtroom) is possible only if you distance yourself emotionally from the human beings in the cases:  the graphic photographs and witness accounts become a scary movie that ends when the house lights come on. Those people who died sudden, spectacular, before-their-time deaths weren’t my people; their deaths were only abstractly terrible.

         I imagined that I’d (have to) deal with death when people my own age got old and began dying, and then maybe I’d talk about it (and not much else) like the old codgers that hang around donut shops (like Mr. Forte’s dad used to do) or like Marge and her gossipy ladybird pals at lunch (with wine). I’m 62 and the people I hang out with do yoga and play tennis and take Lipitor, so the Funeral Club at Yum Yum seemed decades away.

         Then my brother died four months ago, and I realized that death can slip under the healthy skins of the far-too-young, of the careful and smart and kind, of the rule-followers. Of my people. I learned that death’s timing follows no clock or calendar, sun or moon, that it can take you in its awful arms when you’re sick or well, miserable or joyous, when someone hates you or loves you more than life. Those people who died in planes crashing into houses in San Diego or mountains in Burma, who died drowning in backyard pools, by stepping off curbs in front of cars or running across train tracks, in labor rooms of hospitals, those people whose stories I had tap-tapped into my Stenograph and turned into words on paper, each of them was someone’s person, just like Craig was mine. I was reminded of this sober fact again recently.
         My son-in-law Chris has had a great friend since the beginning of high school, a woman named Emily, who was a freshman when he was a sophomore. Chris is 42, so that was 27 years ago. When Chris was just 18, still in high school in New York, and got word from Florida that the father he adored was dead, he hung up the phone and went straight to Emily’s house. She sat with Chris and his agony until the sun rose. Emily is calm and wise and good, wry and funny, as authentic as a human can be. She married John back when all the friends were getting married, close to when Amy married Chris. The four of them lived in San Francisco then. I remember talking to her beautiful self at the party after Amy and Chris’s temple wedding. She and Jonnie moved to a Boston suburb, had two daughters, who are now seven and four, and lived a grounded, joyous, wonderful life.

         A little over a year ago Emily’s father died. Her mother died unexpectedly mere months later while the family was together at a summer house on Flathead Lake in Montana. The winter and spring sped by back in Massachusetts, fortunately deathless, Jonnie working and training for triathlons, swimming at Walden every morning, Emily working, the girls in school. They camped with friends at Yellowstone in August. A month ago, on Labor Day weekend, Emily’s stepfather fell down a mountain – (fell down a mountain??) – while hiking near Flathead and died. Three parents, like dominos, gone.  The whole family – Emily, her sister, their husbands, children, aunts, uncles, cousins – gathered again in the lake house, this time for Jim’s memorial, and stayed for a few extra days before going home to California and Cambridge. The adults swam to a rock outcrop in the bay behind their house and the kids splashed in the shallows. Late Friday afternoon Jonnie was making one more lap to the rock while Emily herded wet children in towels inside for a bath.

         Jonnie was run over by a pleasure boat 300 feet from shore, one of his legs severed by the prop. Although a passenger in the boat was a doctor and tried to get a tourniquet on him, Jonnie was dead before they got his body to the gravel beach.

         I can hear little girls’ laughter echoing in a tiled bathroom, feel warm steam on my temples. I can see myself standing on a wooden deck, my hand on the top rail, watching the little waves slap slap the gravel beach, hear the leaves rustle in the trees about to let summer go by. I can’t see Emily’s face. Maybe it’s because she’s gone home with the girls who will not remember their dad  except in stories attached to pictures of him, who are numb to having people disappear from their lives, who understand that death stole their father and left their mother but no one knows why.

         I can’t see Emily’s face. Because I see Chris’s face. Because now I know that there is no reason at all why this happened to Jonnie and to Craig but not to Chris, this glare of sunlight on a lake or a knobby knot of cancer cells. It could have been – could still be – Chris’s fate, the man I would have custom-ordered if I had been designing not a son-in-law but a son. Death, the short straw, an instant of bad luck, misplaced karma, they are all suddenly everywhere, very near. And my hands on the deck rail begin to tremble, don’t they, because now I can’t see Jonnie’s face or Chris’s, only Amy’s face, my heart, my heart.

         The beats are seconds apart, slow and drumlike, while I hold this terrible possibility in my mouth and I stand here, blinking and looking at the backs of my hands. This is why I have been so afraid, why I can’t talk anymore about Craig, or yet about Craig, why I left the letters, why I cry at even the idea of writing the rest of his sad, twisted story. It isn’t his face I see. It’s Chris’s or Amy’s or Tom’s or – I can’t even say it – Simone’s. It could be any one of them, alive and brilliant and funny and warm, these people I love, right here with me now, but maybe not in the next moment or not by tonight. And then not tomorrow, not for any tomorrow.

          And it offends this romantic belief I guarded that death is selective, that it doesn’t take good, rule-following people, that accidental, bloody deaths happen to people who are stupid and take risks, who abuse themselves, who shoot guns while drunk, who drive speeding cars, who jump off mountains with flimsy manmade wings. I believed that until it got close to me, until I realized how silly it was to think Death cares a snap how good or careful or old someone is.

         The trite line here might be “Live every day as though it were your last,” but I’m smart enough to know that gets lost in the daily shuffle of work and phone calls and dogs, eating and sleeping, what’s new at the movies. I would like, frankly, right now to find and set on fire all remaining trite lines.

         I am an optimist trying to be a realist. I hope, as if it will matter, for the life of our beloved Siobhan, my superstar 47-year-old niece who is at war with Stage 4 cancer. I touch Mr. Forte’s warm self with my lips or my hands whenever I can reach him; I dance with him by the kitchen sink; we went to the beach last night and watched the sun set. I make plans to drive north to be with Amy and Chris and Simone, to breathe their air.  I watch the finches while they’re here, hopping in the elm, teasing me like flying Waldos.

         I close my eyes and see a house on a lake in Montana. Summer is over and the trees have turned; leaves are in drifts at the feet of the pines and in the vee of the boat dock. The water is an intense blue, clear as lead crystal and very cold; hard huffs of wind gust through the woods.  The summer people have gone, leaving the tough year-rounders.  A good young man died in a tragedy just out there on the water, and a good old woman died in the house, but that hasn’t changed anything here. In the soft October sunshine a house still stands between the trees, sturdy as true love, next to a lake, its waves washing clean the gravel on the shore.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

fall risk

My friend Lisa just posted a link to an essay she wrote back in March of 2012 about whether great (or even good) art (writing) somewhat necessarily comes from pain. She had (recently, I presume, because who could do it while actually having) had a migraine. My first thought was, since I didn’t leave a comment and don’t remember reading it:  Where was I in March of 2012? Curious enough to check, I looked back at my digital calendar. Ah. In the last weeks of Craig’s dying. Which explains so much.

And begs another question: what kind of pain? Here I’ll digress to gratuitiously tell you that my right thigh and hip joint hurt right this second as I type, not viciously but enough that I can’t forget that they do. It has only been a week since Dr. Handsome Witha Saw replaced my corrupt and grizzled right hip joint with a lovely mechanized version in titanium and pearlescent violet ceramic, and, although it could be so so so much worse (as it was with Hip #1 last year), I ache.

Say that word and really draw out the “a” – I aaaache. This dull, deep, barely-rolling-tires-on-a-gravel-road bass line to everything else is my ache. My leg aches, more when it’s still than when it’s moving, which tricks you into moving it more which increases the next being-still ache. It’s not that bad, I tell myself and you, which makes me wonder why I find it necessary to qualify. Because self-reliant, tough chicas can handle pain, ride right over it without griping? Probably. That’s a persona I’ve projected all my life. I’m bitching now because this time I’m saying it’s allowed and no one is editing this piece, probably not even me. Just write the words and don’t reread it if you want honesty and not badge-shining, so that’s what you’re getting this time.

In March of 2012 I was aching on two sturdy legs and writing some of the best stuff I had ever put out. The same is true of my essays from the End of Marge era and from Saying Goodbye to Dad. I sense a theme here. I wonder:  Maybe it isn’t that I write better when I’m emotionally cratering but when I write about death. Ah, but I can write the crap out of a piece about being in love, especially when my heart is exposed, reckless, pining, defenseless. I’ve written many about Mack and how it used to be when I would fling myself in front of the steel-studded tires of his indifference. I used to relish a challenge. Now I wonder how someone can fake it this long – or how foolish it is to not see unkindness for exactly what it is: not caring, an empty well, a missing chromosome, and that it isn’t the reason that matters, only the fact.

A singer-songwriter said once that she was, for the first time in a long while, happily in love but that the songs she was trying to write were awful compared to the ones written when she had been lonely and treated badly by some rat-bastard. Antje Duvekot, I think it was, and that’s my description, not hers, but you get the drift. Angst, it’s more than the salt in your soup; it’s the 24% Dutch-process cocoa powder in your flourless chocolate cake, the difference between meh and magical. And if you don’t think so, make two cakes, one with the 24% and one with Hershey's, taste them and get back to me. It’s the difference between a tentative, questing, hungry, warm-lipped kiss and one so perfunctory you can taste the resignation behind it.

I came home from the hospital with wristbands intact, three of them this time. I wonder if modern medicine has need for more info than can be crammed into one bar code, or if they just add them one by one as you get older. Two have been scissored off, one remains because I rather like its message.

Wandering off the path a bit, I found these paragraphs in an unfinished piece from a couple years ago:

A friend the other night described how he used to swim because it was great exercise but found it "just so fucking boring," said the only way he could keep going was to daydream about sex; he would weave these elaborate fantasies that carried him along, buoyed and distracted. I said, "Swimming laps is so awfully slow, though. How long could you keep the movie going?" He laughed. "A long time, a lot longer than in real life." I like an honest man.

We're all getting older, and we're married and too content to be tempted by cheating. Well, except the idea of it; that lingers, sizzling like bacon on a griddle, background noise in the busy diner of our lives. They say men fantasize about women other than their wives or current amours; I didn't ask Brian who he imagined fucking for ten laps, and Mack would never have even answered the baseline question about imaginary sex; Catholic school has sealed his sinful lips. I smile. He knows he would like Brian to ask me if and about whom I daydream, but also is more sure, even than I, that he wouldn't like my answers. We maintain the pretense that we are always monogamous, in thought as well as deed.

The anesthesiologist last week gave me an amnesiac before the next drugs made me unconscious, something I find especially wonderful. It isn’t given because you might be writhing in agony on the operating table when the scalpel opens your skin and fat layer like a ripe peach and it would be better if, indeed, you didn’t remember that (a scenario that horrifies my friend Ellie and, she swears, is the reason she can’t commit to any cosmetic procedure that requires a general); I think it’s a bit of insurance for those times that the anesthetic effect might be lightening, intentionally or otherwise. I had a total hysterectomy back in the late nineteen eighties, and my smart-aleck friend and OB/GYN told me I talked all the way through it but refused to tell me what I had said. He hinted, though, with a raised eyebrow. He had sure heard enough during my regular office visits in stirrups back in those days to know there was the potential for some embarrassing stories. I wonder if, during these hip procedures, I babbled anything incriminating. Better not to know.

Let’s get back to pain. On one hand, low-grade, nagging, constant, ranging from an annoyance to beginning-to-gnaw-on-one’s-last-nerve and, on the other, intense, sharp, breathtaking, blood-pressure-raising, consuming. My hip ache – or my heartache – compared to a blinding migraine or a throbbing, flayed wound, well, we all know which we would choose if choice were possible. The hard pain – 8 , 9 or 10 out of 10 – doesn’t enable or produce art or anything good, only agony and a plea for release, please please. The former, for some of us, is necessary for words to flow or notes to string or hearts to open, to bleed bright red, to feel instead of describe, to swim in a vast warm sea instead of a chlorine pool, to imagine the taste of lips yours will never touch, words that will never be whispered into your willing ear, a thudding heart against yours that belongs to someone for whom you are as essential as breath because, apparently, some people won’t stop until they find that, won’t settle for almost-there or sometimes-there or pretense, won’t give up because it’s too much work or it leaves one vulnerable-to-death. And it doesn’t matter one tiny bit whether all this happens in the real world in your real life with skin-and-bones people or just in the endless reaches of your shockingly fertile imagination. I don't even know if perhaps this reality was once mine and Mack's and has been flattened by decades of grinding life or if it was only ever mine, woven into whole cloth from threads of hopefulness and need. But I guess at this point it doesn't really matter:  pain is pain, love is love, the only and insignificant difference is how you get there.

I guess I have always been – and remain – at great risk for falling.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

the season of expecting bad news

We are coming up on Highest Fire Threat time, mid- to late October. Since I wrote the piece below we have lived through almost five late summers, thick with heat, and one terrible wind-driven blaze that charred the canyon black just across the street from our driveway, the one I described so cheerily back in 2011. My brother, whose story crept into this narrative, died, as most of you know, the following spring. The oppressive weather of September and October used to make me bitchy and angry. Now this semi-season grows a tumor of dread in my belly; fear rolls off me like sweat; I start at sudden sounds. Sometimes I read this piece to remember how it began, when I realized I could control only the small, unimportant things.

Thursday, 9.8.11

            Some guy at the power substation in Yuma, AZ flipped the wrong switch and most of the lower third of the Great State of California and four million people of its people are powerless. Maybe he should have been thinking about the grid instead of that woman in HR with the nice ass. And why did he have to do it today when I am itching to write in a way I have been longing to itch for weeks, this afternoon when I am riding full tilt in the Word Funnel, phrases and ideas swirling in my head, waiting to blow out the little end onto a virtual page, lines and squiggles in Book Antigua?

            No matter, said Ms. Efficient, gathering hurricanes and candles, log lighter, matches and many, many flashlights, congratulating herself for grilling an extra-large steak last night (just in case Yuma Guy was thinking with his penis today? did she know?) and not being out of romaine, as usual. Dinner, handled. Last half-gallon of milk in the freezer ice bin for morning coffee and don’t open the door ‘til then. It is a freaking sauna in this house – open the windows here and down the hall to try to achieve the miracle that is cross-ventilation.

            When Tom pulls up the drive, I’m out there in the Mini with the engine running and two chargers plugged in, juicing my cell and iPad, singing to The Wreckers with the air-conditioner cranked and a full tank of gas. He frowns, puzzled, at my cheery wave. Making the best of things, I say, all charged up.

            Once in his home team uniform of shorts and ratty tee, he hands me his soggy suit coat and slacks. What did you do, I ask, swim home? No, he explains, but he was in the lobby of the office building when the power went out, so he walked up 20 flights to where his clients were waiting for him, then back down 20 when the guard said the emergency lights in the stairwell were shutting off in half an hour. He’s a wet, tired, 80-year-old Energizer bunny who deserves a big glass of wine.

            We eat outside in the gathering gloom (as the Moody Blues sang), whispering about how far sound travels in this spooky quiet. A neighbor across the canyon out back, a quarter mile away, talking. Coyotes far down the canyon, yipping and laughing. The faintest hum – can you hear that? – that we finally agree is the sound of cars on the interstate six miles west. The air is thick and hot. Night has fallen hard to the dark ground. The tea lights are guttering. A mosquito bites and Tom’s palm slaps skin. Inside.

            He tucks into the guest room because I want to write. Besides, he thinks he hears more coyotes over there, though I know better. He’s asleep in seconds, his breathing a bellows that sucks air out of the hall. I blow out the candles like a birthday girl and follow the last one, held in my hand like Tinkerbelle in a jar, down another leg of the hacienda to our bedroom.

            I build a light fort with flashlights balanced on furniture and sit in my underwear where the beams intersect on the bed, legs flat out and a fat feather pillow scrunched between my thighs, in the vee, iPad on top. My fastest-typist-in-the-class fingers are flying on its pretend keyboard, not tapping because the only sound is a minute skin-glass thud, maybe a thid, a thip, a tip – tip tip tip tip, they run together, it’s so fast, words are shooting out my fingerprints, nanopauses here, there. I hear a coyote just outside, a bark, another, and I look up.

            Where the light beams cross on the bed is a campfire. The black-ink corners of the room are the night, and the walls have fallen away, leaving me under a sky of glitter and silence and a three-quarter moon that begs for an ululating howl. The coyote obliges, and then her friend nearby, calling, calling. So I answer, straightened back, chin up, whispering aaaah-rooooo, the same note, held, the lyric to a coyote tune.

            A Paul Simon song from yesterday bounces into my head, and I remember the words: 

            “A pilgrim on a pilgrimage
           Walked across the Brooklyn Bridge
           His sneakers torn
           In the hour when the homeless move their cardboard blankets
           And the new day is born.”

            Writing songs would be so hard, the music part especially might as well just be impossible and then fitting words to its melody, and then rhyming, for Pete’s sake, and not just moon and June but verses that are so good you can’t forget them, not ever, like:

            “Folded in his backpack pocket
            The questions that he copied from his heart
            Who am I in this lonely world?
            And where will I make my bed tonight?
            When twilight turns to dark.” 
            “Questions for the angels
            Who believes in angels?
            Fools do
            Fools and pilgrims all over the world.”

            My brother had cancer, you know, and now he has more cancer. I wasn’t writing about that, not on the night the lights went out and not today before this, but now I guess I am. The surgeons cut it out, a lot of it, all of it (we thought), chunks of his neck and arm, big meaty pieces that left one hand quivering and his voice as scratchy as an old 45, twisting scars like long gristle rivers that cross craters covered with skin. Tiny dots on a PET scan, some new things or maybe some old things a knife or the poison missed, who knows, no one, no one does, but there they are. More cutting soon, maybe with lasers this time. He’ll be fine. He will. He says and I believe. I don’t believe in angels, fool and even pilgrim that I am, but I believe him. Maybe. Maybe he’s an angel.

            But that night I was just thinking that if I wrote more and more, tip tip tipped more words, thousands of words onto the lighted page, that every once in a while some phrase would stick, like “questions that he copied from his heart” does, would strike the inside of a tiny brass owl and make an almost imperceptible sound and be remembered by someone for a little while even without an accompanying string of notes.

            That night I was sitting at my campfire in the arms of the intense silence of a powerless night, in a darkness that came from the bottom of the lightless ocean and colored everything invisible for hundreds of miles, blotted it out, wondering how Simon had thought of rhyming “disappear” and “zebra tear,” listening to Tom breathe and the coyotes cough. Until I yawned one last time and clicked off the flashlights, pulled a sheet over my hot legs and lay my sweaty head down to sleep.

            By morning power had been restored and everything was just as it had been before. 

            “If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it
            Should disappear
            Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah
            Care enough to shed one zebra tear? 

            “Questions for the angels
            Who believes in angels?”

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Last night I was opening saved blog posts from the writing/mag site where I started posting back in 2009 because the site is closing for good and a bunch of us who had belonged there were waxing (or waning) nostalgic. I found the piece that follows, though it was never published and was written years after I had left that site; it's just been sitting in a folder on my Mac. Though I barely remember writing it, I do remember the time, years ago now, and feeling like a balloon held by someone who didn't have a firm grip on the string. Reading it made me laugh and shake my head a little. I didn't edit it, am just serving it up as the messy omelet it is.

           I write better with eyeliner on.

            Last week was spent splashing around with Simone, first in the fountain here at Casa de Swell, then the beach, and finally in the big blue pool at Spirit Hill Farm. I wore baggy capris and lots of sunscreen but no makeup for a who-cares-bare-your-face summery seven days, but now I’m back and trying to get real. Like a brother-in-law told me:  It’s nice to vacation at the shore, but part of me misses my wingtips. The gimlet-eyed sliver of me that watches blood dripping from my fingers onto the keyboard and issues a score for authenticity sees those pajama bottoms and dirty hair.

            How can I be this old and still unsure of so much? I swing from one end of an arc, down and up to the weightless other (imagine The Pit and the Pendulum), then down and back, over and over. I want success and praise and fame and money, I’m jealous of others who get those things, I tell myself I could do/have them except for -- insert list of Things Beyond My Control and list of Things Which Require Too Much Effort – but then I’m all … meh. Seriously, imagining one could be The Next Blogging Rock Star is like thinking I should cash in our IRAs and go to Vegas. And I hate Vegas. I don’t even buy lottery tickets, though I totally would if that national one that’s illegal in California wasn’t illegal in California. Who doesn’t want a few Mega Millions?

            Then I happen upon some statistic (after getting sucked into logging in at Twitter – an utterly mysterious universe – by the baited hook of an email that says someone wants to follow me  - pant!pant!) - that the Twitter Snarks push in front of my confused, insecure, uneyelinered eyes that crows: So_and_So has 4,836 followers. And I happen to know that So_and_So is an annoying, self-righteous, adjective over-user that my invisible friends and I have made fun of for years. And I think: 4,836? Really? and try to work out how So_and_So got like serious dirt to use as Follow Me ransom on nearly five goddamn thousand people. Which leads me to be totally positive that I would have to be just like So_and_So in order to be popular on Twitter, so fuck that, I will eschew Twitter, possibly forever. I write down “eschew” so I can remember to use it again soon. Or not.

            Time for a break from “work,” so I read the latest from The Bloggess, who is one of my online heroines. Should I just try to be wackier? Adobe Soup would certainly be funnier if I used all the loony unspoken flotsam that sloshes around in my brain, X-rated topics allowed, full confession time, with a straight man like Bloggess’s Victor as a foil. I’ve done some Wry Dialogue With Mr. Forte pieces, but he’s the bumbling comedian and I always get to play the smarty-pants with the raised eyebrow and the right answer. Should we reverse roles? Not in real life, just in the stories. Wait. Stories? Could it be that Jenny’s blog is stories, not real life? Or maybe rewritten real life or exaggerated real life? Does that require a disclaimer, like “This is not exactly nonfiction” like that guy James whatshisname who got busted for exaggerating the grisly details of his drug addiction and rehab? If I cartoon up Life With Mot to get strangers to laugh/follow/become huge fans, what about all the people who actually know us and read Adobe Soup who will then think Mr. Respectable is married to a potty-mouth lunatic? I should never have sent those email blasts to friends/family trolling for readers. Maybe I should change my name.

            Okay. James whatshisname’s drug addiction leads me to consider writing a memoir, which is really nothing more than many emotive, embarrassing-past-disclosing blog pieces published under one title. Like that woman in the New York Times Magazine piece, Jeanette Walls, who wrote “The Glass House” about her horrific childhood and god-awful mother (who still hoards, lets cats pee all over her house, refuses to bathe and, therefore, stinks and who hid – and ate – a Hershey bar when her kids had no food).  I have to admit that when Ms. Walls (“whippet thin,” according to the reporter) said she sometimes doesn’t eat for a day or two, I really hated her even if it happens because she spent her childhood being hungry all the time. That memoir was a monster bestseller. Or Mary Karr, who wrote “The Liar’s Club,” another secret-spiller and money-maker. In a contest for crappiest mother, mine could hold her own against those two, I think. Still, a book is even more of a crapshoot than a blog. All those months of work, clinking through the Carmeda memories like so many empty booze bottles, agonizing over the cover art (because I so would) and font style, only to wind up with a bunch of unsold Kindle editions … do “unsold Kindle editions” actually exist? … I’d be better off writing a cookbook.

            Or just cooking. Writing a cookbook is harder than writing a memoir, and there are all those uber judgmental So You Think You Can Braise people out there. Fah. Cooking is fun and beautiful and messy and smells wonderful and satisfying in damn near every sensory way. Except for the problem that I’m oozing out of my bra and my jeans barely zip, cooking is a killer option. Some days (like all the ones between 15 pounds ago and right now) I just say, fine, if Ina Garten can wear untucked shirts and waddle around Paris in flats, not caring, so can I. (That assumes that Ina Garten doesn’t care what her ass looks like which, since we are not latte buddies, I don’t know. Maybe she cares as much as I do, which is why I’m eating tomatoes instead of a potato/cheese/cream gratin for dinner.) Size 10, here I come. Just in time to go to Paris in September for our vacation of a  lifetime and make a beeline for Poilâne where I will eat my weight in bread with perfect crust. Oh, and I’m not going to think about what the esthetician told me: “At your age (she didn’t actually say that because she’s far too nice and I would have cried if she had, but it was totally implied) if you are thin, your face looks gaunt (and wrinkled, again unsaid, like a prune) and your body looks great; if you are a little overweight, it is the opposite.” See? One or the other, never both. Except when you are young, before you are on your final swim upstream. Like a salmon. By the way, have you ever seen what happens to a Chinook’s face on that last lap? I am now very seriously considering Juvederm. And I just bought Power Swabs on Amazon Prime and am looking up neckectomies.

            So now I have spent two hours on what everybody will think is a Woe Is Me thing that I totally hate when people do. It’s not, so don’t go all “No, Candy, it’s not that bad.” I know. It’s only that bad half the time, at the bottom of the pit, and in just a minute I’ll be heading up up up to the lemon ricotta cheesecake from Della Fattoria. Or maybe beans on toast. There must be a place that grows borlotti beans that I can find around here, 500 miles from Sonoma County where they are everywhere. As if I actually need to eat beans. Or toast.

            One last thought. [Mystery Person] posted this hilarious thing on Facebook a few weeks ago that I can’t stop thinking about.


Is that not the ultimate passive-aggressive rationalization piece? I remember when my brother was trying to make a living as a musician (back in the idealistic ‘seventies) and there was a lot of bad-mouthing of bands who were “commercial” and how it was way more bitchin to write songs that were real and true to yourself instead of going over to the dark side and putting out stuff just because it was what the radio stations wanted to play and what the masses wanted to sing along with. When every single guy with a guitar and an amplifier and a hopeful voice would have thrown his best friend to a gang of starving lions for a record contract.

            Which reminds me. We watched The Hunger Games last night. I did anyway; Mr. Forte saw the first few and last few minutes, missing the bloodiest bits. He liked Stanley Tucci’s blue-haired guy. It was quite good, I thought, and I get why Jennifer Lawrence is such a hit. She’s an under-actor, a plus, and has one of those fascinating faces – not pretty (except those moments when it is and is stunning), missing the classic angles and features of magazine cover girls – that is Meryl Streep-ish. She plays strong women in Hunger and Silver Linings Playbook. She runs a lot. I think acting (back when I was young, not now) might have been a very cool thing to do if it didn’t involve running. And knowing that you always look ten pounds heavier in the film than you are, so you have to go through life eating and drinking (or exercising six hours a day) to be X minus 10. Maybe not so fun. I would totally eat the blue berries for Mr. Forte even though I’m pretty sure he would only pretend to, the heartless survivor. Story of my life, romantic gesture seeker that I am.

            A classmate in court reporting school (who routinely flunked dictation speed tests) used to say, “I just washed my hands and can’t do a thing with ‘em,” which still makes me chuckle. So I guess if I’m going to get anything down on paper that’s worth a few eyeballs, I better get cleaned up and find my Raven Glaze Lacquer pen.

Monday, December 15, 2014

the ides of december, icy tears

Kay will likely be gone from this earth before morning, her tired body on its way to ashen grit and her spirit, stubborn as a Missouri mule (though she was, on a cellular level, a Chicago girl), on its way to the heaven she believes in.

She is the only sister of Mack and his two brothers, is the family’s heart and its vault, keeper of old photographs and stories, Ft. Knox of lore and truth and gossip. Since her mother died decades ago, she has been our sticky center. When she is gone, no one will take her place; there will only be a hole, with raveling edges, in our fabric.

How ill she was was known just to her and her only daughter, who was sworn to secrecy. There was to be no drama, no people rushing to Chicago and spending money on ridiculous last-minute airfares. Hints, like the smell of smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, came in sentences she wouldn’t finish, in oddly brief and infrequent phone calls. She began to contract:  folding in on herself, not eating much, her voice hard to hear and hoarse.  She slept; she made some plans; she felt both a deepening struggle and a strange lightness. She knew a door was going to open. A few of us felt the draft.

My Amy’s birthday was last week, and Kay’s card came uncharacteristically late, with an apology among the sweet handwritten things she always wrote – what a wonderful girl you are, how kind, how proud she was. The ending was a sentence she had never written before:  “I will love you forever.”

Mack and his brothers are on planes, flying as fast as they can to get to her and say goodbye, though the words will utterly fail them. I imagine a map with pins and string: one from the farthest southwest corner, one from the western plains, one from D.C., converging in the rough-and-tumble, the windy winter bonecold of Chicago, where all of them were born and one of them is about to die.

Dear Kay, we know you gave us so much more than we gave back, and we are dumbstruck at imagining any of our lives without you. We were like birds – handsome, bright-colored males who got all the attention while you fluttered, short and beige and industrious, in the background, running the machinery of the family. We hope you will be warm in your new home, that Everyone’s Favorite Uncle John has the place tidied up to your liking when you get there, and that all the windows are open. We want you to know that you were the perfect sister. We will love you forever.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

ghost is gone

One of the fish in the pond got sucked into the recirculating intake pipe and died in the filter basket with a few snails and a wad of slimy water lettuce.

I don’t remember what Simone named that one, but its body was solid shimmering white and its head was the color of an apricot - Ghost, maybe. Curiosity — “I wonder what’s in that strange round opening” — apparently kills more than cats. Poor fish, slammed around inside a plastic cage by relentless rushing water, in the dark. I wonder if it couldn’t catch its breath or starved or just said “fuck this” and gave up. Do its four friends know it’s gone? Do they miss him? Or was Ghost a her, and why does this make me sadder?

There is a kind of loneliness so profound it’s hard to describe. A unconnectedness, as if not even air quite touches my body; there is a layer of nothing, microns deep, between me and the rest of all that is the world. I don’t think about it often, only when the confidence I am famous for breaks like the shell on a boiled egg and before another layer grows. While it hardens, I am vulnerable, wide open to wounding.

This might explain why I crave touch, warm skin, the muffled thump of a beating heart. My ear, pressed against Mack’s neck just below the hinge of his jaw, finds the whoosh of blood pulsing to his face and his brain, the food for his ability to smile and blink, to reason and wonder. If I turn and place my closed eye there, his heartbeat echoes in my head, thinning the nothingness layer to almost-gone. Like warm sand on bare feet or a hairbrush against my scalp, it is the cat-arch of good feeling that I want to just keep happening until the sun implodes.

Recently I decided to finish our bedroom, a place that had, over eight years, become a warehouse for things that belonged nowhere: boxes, ugly sun-bleached curtains that didn’t fit, a sloppy bed. Lots of time, angst and dollars later, the windows are nicely draped and the pillows on the couch make me smile. But the coverlet I was sure was the key to my loving this room only makes it harder to make the bed, which explains why it spends half the days folded in half and flung over a chair. It’s a little like making that incredibly delicious cake that the majority of people at your dinner table refuse (on account of all.those.calories) which prompts you to have a huge piece (at least I will appreciate this!) despite your tight ass jeans. Are you happy now?

I want to think I would be happier if I were closer - all the time - to more people who love me, if I (or we, but Mack snorts at that thought) lived somewhere near San Francisco. See, except for my girl, her husband, and Simone, almost all of my people are scattered ashes, and we live down here among the ‘steps,’ only a few of whom are glad Mack has been married for nearly thirty years to the woman he has actually loved for all of those plus fifteen more. If all you care about is someone’s money, you tend to pfffft at real love, especially if you don't have any. That makes for awkward holiday chit-chat and is my number two reason (behind adoring those three up north) for bolting up the freeway at the drop of a hat. It also chips at my eggshell, tapping at a weak spot, aiming to hurt. I try not to care about the not-so-subtle meannesses; I am ashamed for even noticing; I scold myself to stop it.

Give me a soft jacket, an old one from half a life ago with pockets furry on the insides, and a red scarf. In the cool of a early autumn evening, I will sit on the side of the fountain and wait for the pump to stop and the four survivors to drift from under the matted roots into the clear water around the waterlilies. They will dart and glide, staying near each other and then swimming away to the corners of their rectangular sea, watching for food that might magically appear, and avoiding the ominous hole that ate their pale friend.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

wrap it up

“October” was derived, I’m certain, from some ancient word that meant “big spiders.” Around here, those monsters bounce in loose, end-of-season webs hung with egg cases and wait for one last summer bug to suck the life out of or death by winter, whichever comes first. The breeze that rocks them is cool, hinting at damp; summer’s oven wind, the fire-spreader, is gone, the potential baby spiders safe from being incinerated until spring. Outside my office window, the elm’s leaves are changing from vibrant green to sick yellow; the finches will come back for those few days when the color camouflage is perfect, before there is nothing left but determined gestating spider wads hanging from bare branches.

Fall is a manic time in the garden. I hurry to root out the old and buy new before the growers run out of things to sell and close down for the holidays and all of January, before the rains we’ve been promised might actually come for the first time in an entire thirsty year. My left bionic hip is still not strong enough for me to drive a spade into the ground with my boot, so I direct my helpers, Luis and Felix, by gesturing at tired shrubs and broken sprinkler heads with my cane. Tapping around the beds and along the flagstone paths, marking things for execution, I find sticky webs and secreted eggs, covered in fuzz like tiny tennis balls, in odd places:  the hole-side of a gate latch (stuffed so full the damn thing won’t click shut), inside an upended, empty pot, and strung eye-high across my path between nearly every tree and the closest downspout. I swing my cane like a scythe, breaking the silk free before it wraps around my head. The strands glue themselves to the cane shaft, and soon I am dragging nests behind me like a dress train made of dirty gossamer and awkward pompoms.

Many years ago I drove to Carmel in October, pulling up into the steep driveway at what we called The Second San Luis House just before midnight. I don’t remember what the bad news was — and the season doesn’t correspond with what I know were the milestones of my father’s physical decline and eventual death — only that there was some, that I took a deep breath before I opened the car door and got out of the driver’s seat with the taste of dread in my mouth. Marge had forgotten to turn on any outside lights; the living room floated — a small, homely gold — above a deep of unbroken black:  oaks and conifers, the quiet hillside, the starless, moonless sky. I felt my way across the asphalt and up the flagstone steps with my feet acting like a blind person’s cane, nudging the next riser, feeling for hard surfaces, avoiding slippery drifts of pine needles. Dense hedges of prickly ceanothus and hollies lined the stair and the patio at the top, behind the house, waiting to snag your sweater or scratch any skin that got close. Having made it to the house without injury, I opened the unlocked kitchen door and went in, softly calling “yoo-hoo.”

My memory is gappy after that. I know Dad was sleeping and we talked about him without him, but quietly. Hannah, their yellow lab, ambled out from her bed next to his to be polite and say hello but without any of her usual body-wagging enthusiasm. Whatever was wrong — and something clearly was; I just can’t remember what — wasn’t horrible, just sad and inevitable. We sat and talked, hugged and cried a little, warm by the fire and a ticking clock. After a while we decided whatever else needed saying could wait until morning and I should get my bag out of the car. Marge said, “Oh, shoot. I didn’t turn on the lights for you. I’m so sorry. Here, let me get the switch.” The floods set in the eaves of the house, front and back, and all along the driveway came on, bright as a sports stadium for a night game. I grabbed her forearm and said, “Oh, god. Look.”

Outside the front door and along the deck, two stories above the descending hillside, were a couple dozen huge native shrubs, closely planted, curving away to the far end of the house and then around to the back patio, merging with the shorter, stabbier plants that lined the steps I had climbed in the dark. Gigantic spider webs, each five feet in diameter, looking for all the world like ropy crocheted blankets, covered the bushes from top to bottom. They reflected the artificial light, glowing, silver as tinsel. In the middle of each web was a big dark spider, clinging and awake, its knuckled legs carefully feeling for the twang of a catch in the night. The Carmel damp had hung droplets of water on the strands, glittering against the leaves’ dull dark green. Ground fog filled the space between tree trunks and shrubs behind the web wall all the way down to the street, covering my car and the driveway. We turned and looked out the back windows - the spiders and their spun creations surrounded the house on all sides; it was a gapless spider wall, a web fortress.

I said, “I can’t believe I walked through that and didn’t know. I’m not going out there 'til morning, and maybe not even then. Maybe we can be helicoptered out. Can I borrow a nightgown?” Marge, a country woman who usually sniffed at my city folk ways, nodded without comment and went to get one.

I walked back to the front to watch the fairy tale spiders riding in identical loopy, swaying homes that looked like rotten sails on weird ships. A thin wind wobbled them once, twice; the spiders wiggled and resettled. I shivered. Then a sharp, hard gust snapped through the branches from behind, and all the little water droplets flew out of the webs at once, arcing, to shatter, suddenly light- and lifeless, on the deck, ten thousand spider tears.

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