Sunday, October 15, 2017

sun days

We live in the southernmost corner of the West Edge on a cul-de sac street that runs down a ridge between two canyons. If I walk up the hill to the end of our block, I can see the Pacific Ocean way off in the distance, and I can drive to the Mexican border in half an hour.

 The sun comes up a little later here at Casa de Swell than it did when we lived a few miles west on the coast, or it seems that way to me. The house and garden are snugged into a steep hill to the east with more and taller hills further on until the land drops to the desert and California slides into Arizona. The sun has to climb high, high before it’s visible, and by then it’s thrown a lot of light at whatever is in the sky that morning, taking its time. It has all day, after all. Things dance to a sunrise.

 The sun sets in the ocean, of course, plunk, like a penny in a fountain, there one second and not the next, its trumpeting, dying day flaming against whatever clouds are around a minute or two later: blood orange and ‘seventies hot pants pink that darkens to purple sky and indigo sea. Gaudy Vegas women, the sunsets here.

 Sunrises are softer. The glare-y bit doesn’t last as long and isn’t as blinding, as face-burning hot. Dialed down, the nuclear fusion is just getting started, not flinging molten lava solar flares around just yet. A flare is not lava, you know; it just looks like that in pictures. It’s not a thing even, like boiling iron or even boiling gas; it’s an explosion of electromagnetic radiation that shows up in radio waves and x-rays and gamma rays. How telescopes can see a picture of something – spewing, arcing lava-like stuff that breaks like a wave and drops in hot drabs, falling back to the sunsea – a picture of something that isn’t a solid or liquid or gas I can’t imagine. So I skip the science class and imagine the clouds are feeling the warmth and changing colors in response, like toast that browns under the glowing coil, flowers that open to catch it, hold it.

 People are gaga for sunsets. When we lived a block from the beach we saw them every day, walking in front of the house and across the street, heading west like tan zombies to stand on the bluff for a few minutes as the round sun flattened and drowned on the horizon. Sometimes we went too and stood in the jagged line above the sand and sandstone, everyone’s west-facing skin golden and lit like watchers at a campfire. The temperature drops noticeably when it’s over; a thin chill seeps off the water and wraps your ankles. Time to go. It’ll be dark soon.

 I like sunrises more, and mornings and coffee. I like things at the start of the day, people stirring, eyes opening, sleepy smiles at what’s ahead. There have been enough endings in my life recently; I’ll stick with beginnings.

Friday, April 7, 2017

who rocked my boat? (or how I got my oar back)

Someone – if I could remember who, they’d be so damn sorry – mentioned the idea of downsizing. You know, selling your nice, comfortable house with its shaded patios and pretty gardens and moving into something … else. Mr. Forte and I began, calmly at first, to discuss this. We said things like “less maintenance” and “smaller” and “simpler.” Because I love change and a challenge, I was off and running and soon focused on a townhouse being built near Balboa Park (and Mr. Forte’s office downtown) with three swanky, modern floors, a light well, underground parking, and an elevator. Turns out my spouse was picturing something … else. We’ve been married almost forever and have learned, painfully, that each of us is a control freak who hates sharing. As a result, I take care of My Stuff and he His Stuff (which is Our Stuff divided up into who's best with it), and we don’t question decisions made by each other in those domains. Suggestions and “good ideas” are not welcome. One of us would have to really screw up royally for the other to insist on invading that space; it has happened only twice in thirty years. Mostly, we just bob along like two small boats on the same slow river. But there we were, contemplating a Major Life Change. It made sense to do it: we live thirty+ miles from the city; Mr. Forte still commutes to work, but he’s 86 and hates the drive; I can’t dig up acreage and climb ladders and haul things around like I used to, so we’re paying for labor; the days of putting on family parties for thirty or forty people are long gone since everyone has grown up and mostly moved away. Except for sharing the obsessive control trait, we couldn’t possibly be more different. Mr. Forte is a plodder who puts things off, mulls things over, changes his mind, thinks big-picture (like a good lawyer), and feels zero time pressure. If I were snarky, I’d add that he knows everything about lawyering and flying an airplane but almost nothing about anything else at all in the whole world. On the other hand, I dive into a problem, am a whiz at research, make lists, am a quick weigher of pros and cons, hate having undone, half-assed projects on my to-do list, and am notoriously impatient. See the problem yet? Complicating matters is another piece of real estate that we own, a rental that’s been squatted in by indulged family members for decades. Do we sell A and move into tiny, trashed B after spending vast sums of money to make it Cool Beachy B, then sell B and move … somewhere else? Fix B a little and rent it to strangers with money? Sell A and move to Swanky Condo where Mr. Forte can’t hide and never talk to neighbors? Sell A and move to nicely redone smallish house in Point Loma that costs half of what A would sell for but (as I found out) twice as much as Mr. Forte thinks we should spend for new digs? Drag our heels for months and let these possibilities bounce around in our heads like too many squeaky, rubbing-against-each-other, helium balloons in the back seat of a car? Wait, I know!! Let’s argue uselessly about this for weeks! Let’s think we’ve resolved it only to have someone (not saying who but it sure wasn't me) dredge it all up again so life became "Groundhog Day." Great! What a plan! Hide the knives first, OK? After exhausting every conceivable nit-picking detour of this tangled web – and ourselves – we finally decided to do the least expensive, most rational, least disruptive of all options: Kick lounger out of B, fix B, rent to responsible adult(s), stay happily in A, not pay vast sums to the tax man and stop fighting. True to form, once I knew home would still be home, I whipped into Get It Done gear and finished some projects here at the too-remote homestead that had been on hold while we were staring daggers at each other. Took down ugly framed mirrors in master bath, painted walls a lovely taupe-ish grey, put up right-sized frameless wall mirrors that float and expand the now-uncluttered space; ordered cheap, cute, coral Anthropologie curtains, simple (cheap) iron rods and hardware, and the best curious rabbit tiebacks; found a rustic red and beige vase and some snazzy colored boxes to hide Q-tips and vanity crap in; spent $30 to get next-day delivery on the window stuff. It will all be done by the weekend, took less than ten days, and now I officially love the bathroom. Apologies have been offered and accepted. Some wariness lingers, some appreciation too: of talent and wisdom and things that cannot, by their nature, change. Clocks don’t run backward, not for any of us. My next project is the sturdy wooden gate at the entrance to Casa de Swell’s front courtyard, the elm tree’s patio, the way inside. Its sun-damaged timbers need sanding and priming and a coat of protective paint to help it through the next few years, and I found just the color this afternoon: a blue-green-grey named Boxwood (that isn't the color of boxwood) that is perfect with the many garden greens, the adobe, the red roof tile. Colors that complement; balance restored.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

cilantro or bust

[This was last year, thank God]

It’s Christmas Eve and I have no cilantro. 

If there were any other ingredient I could leave out of the guacamole I need to make for the measly five family members showing up tomorrow night for tacos, I would totally not get in the car and drive to the Always Crowded grocery store, not on this afternoon which will be at least as bad, and maybe worse, than the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but it’s cilantro and there is no substitute for it on this earth. I get my keys and limp my apathetic self down the hall to the garage.

Three miles and two stoplights later, I choose a one-way parking lot aisle after passing three others clogged with angry SUVs. Just as I turn in, a woman there on the left, in the space farthest from the store entrance, pops her trunk and starts loading bags of groceries. On goes my left-turn signal, and I step on the brake far enough away (barely) that she can back out without hitting me. Impatient people in cars pile up behind me, into the through lane. Trunk-loading woman is ploddingly slow, one bag at a time, placing each … bag … with great … care … before reaching into the cart for the next … one. I am determined not to moan or howl or say “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck” very slowly inside my car with the windows up. No, no, no, Amy Winehouse, don’t go there. Just wait. Breathe and wait.

Something catches my eye:  a woman, way down at the far end of the aisle, only three or four spaces from the store, is waving. At me! Because I have looked up, she knows I can see her, and she gestures to an empty space (I hope – I can’t see it) just past her car. I accelerate (not zooming because it’s a parking lot and I’m not insane) down the aisle, past at least a dozen cars, toward her, giving her a thumbs-up and mouthing “thank you,” tapping my fist on my heart so she knows I love her. She and her friend/mother/other woman grin at me, and she curtsies. God, we will be friends forever, whatshername and I. As I struggle, two-footed, hip stiff, out of the driver’s seat, I’m yelling, “THANK YOU” into the parking lot air and people are turning to look. Not smiling, just trying to see who the crazy person is.

I try to snag a cart from a guy who proceeds to shove one into the cart corral across from my car even as I say, “I’ll take tha- …” He doesn’t respond – not in a nice or even a nasty way – just looks through me with his zombie eyes, turns and walks away. My Chino’s reusable bags and purse and tied-up bundle of recyclable newspaper bags get flung into the cart, and off I go into the Maw of Ralphs.

Inside, it is chaos like I have truly never seen. Every checkstand is open, and each one has at least ten baskets/people in its line, though “line” is only vaguely descriptive of them. After the first four baskets in a row, people are doubling up to stay out of the through-walking area at the ends of the shopping aisles (and failing), so it’s just a scrum of shopping carts and pissed-off people and shrieking kids and dead-eyed Ralphs’ employees. I try to maneuver between anyone’s cart and the aisle-cap so I can get into * some part of the store that isn’t the checkout area, but no one is playing this game. I say “Excuse me” to a man who won’t turn his head to acknowledge me and doesn’t move. There is a man on the other side of Playing Deaf Guy who is saying “Excuse me” too and trying to move toward me, and he’s not having any luck. It’s a tense standoff. I motion to Excuse Me Man, and we wait until Playing Deaf Guy gets to move forward, then I block the basket behind him so Excuse Me Man can come through, then put my shoulder down, inch through the line and make a hard left into Frozen Foods. I’m in.

I wasn’t planning on it, but I got some vanilla ice cream because it was right there, which convinced me that I really should make Alice Waters’s Chocolate Cake for a Party instead of serving that crappy store-bought excuse for an apple pie that I got yesterday. Oh-kay, on a roll here. I’ll get cilantro and a couple more avocados for insurance, some light brown sugar for other insurance. I added a half-gallon of milk because I was trapped in front of the milk display for three minutes and had to do something.

Every aisle had people and carts in it, lots of them. Either no one remembered the grocery shopping rules or they had decided it was Hunger Games today. People parked their carts on the right side of an aisle and then took up the space between the cart and the left side of the aisle with themselves and several family members, arguing about which jarred pasta sauce to get. One woman left her cart and her kids – one pouting and staring at the ground, the other jumping around the cart like a rabbit – way down the aisle from where she stood, hands on hips, looking up intently at something near the ceiling lights. I figured she was trying to keep from hitting someone or screaming, so I snuck quietly past her and the kids and everyone else in that same aisle. Zig-zagging was essential. I couldn’t get around the checkout end of any aisle, so I had to go down an aisle, get what I needed, turn around and retrace to the back of the store, then left or right to the next turn-down. It was like following the shape of a comb. The produce department was the worst. People were reciting lists of what they needed out loud, looking around as if they thought they were in, I don’t know, Bass World or Toys R Us, instead of stopped between bananas and grapefruit. The employees were filling depleted bins of potatoes and lettuces and were being set upon by shoppers without a shred of patience (or humanity) left. No one smiled. No one looked as if they had *ever smiled.

There were only four or five cilantro bundles left in this little heap next to the parsley. Was everyone having guacamole tomorrow like us instead of roast beast and Yorkshire pudding like normal people? I grabbed one that didn’t look too trampled and headed back to the maelstrom to pay. Steely resolve, that’s what I need, I told myself.

I went all the way around the back of the store (for the fourth time) so I could sidle up to the Express lanes – ha ha ha ha ha!  The line I chose was four baskets, then one woman with a hand basket, then a guy with a terrible flower arrangement, then me, these last three of us curling around to stay clear of the pumpkin pie impulse kiosk. A Vietnamese woman pushed her cart right up behind Hand Basket Woman, effectively challenging Terrible Flower Man who was having difficulty with defining his personal space. He did this pacing-sideways thing as if he were truly incapable of standing still but wouldn’t stay close enough to Hand Basket to claim his place in line. When Vietnamese Woman inched forward, though, he lurched at her which caused her to back up and collide with this Staring Guy behind her. He made a yelping noise, so I turned to look more carefully at them, curious. The Vietnamese woman had on shorts, or at least a pair of cotton pants that seemed to have a zipper in the front. They were only about six inches from waistband (I use that term because I don’t have another one) to leg hem. They were pulled down (or allowed to drop?) like teenage boys wear their droopy jeans, and she had a tight cropped t-shirt on that stopped at the bottom of her rib cage. There was a vast (even for a small, short woman) amount of exposed skin that I could see, looking at her from the side. She turned her back to me when Staring Guy honked or snorted, exposing the view from behind. There was a large, smooth, featureless area of skin between her shirt and shorts, the most remarkable feature of which being that she had no ass-crack. None. Those shorts were so low that on any normal person, several inches of divided bum would have been visible. I swear to you: it was completely, utterly smooth. No wonder Staring Guy was staring.

Vietnamese Woman tried again to get into the awkward space ahead of Terrible Flower Man, but he cut her off and pointed to the Express 2 lane and nudged the front of her cart with his hand. Touching Another’s Cart is a major violation, and I figured I was going to witness fisticuffs next, but Smooth as an Egg Bum Woman gave in and moved left, dragging Staring Guy behind her like a magnet.

My line began to move quickly, Hand Basket Woman and Terrible Flower Man transacting their payments without incident, then me. There was minimal basket shoving around the poor bagging kids, and I made a wobbly beeline for the exit. The parking lot was worse than before.

I made my way around cars clogging the entrance/exit through lane and clicked Unlock on my key to open my car. Halfway down the aisle I saw a maroon minivan driven by a middle-aged guy with a receding hairline and a look of despair. I waved at him and pointed at my car while I opened the trunk and flung the Chino’s bag inside. He brightened, gave me a big circle-thumb-finger OK, smiled and and mouthed “Thank you.”

 Another best friend, or at least a person who inspires a tiny bit of hope in this supposedly but not usually felicitous season. If you look carefully, you can find these people in the most unlikely of places, even on the most terrible of days.

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, I believed that good people died good deaths and that 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.

         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 I 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 up. 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. Though the loss of both her parents rocked Emily and her little family, winter and spring sped by back in Massachusetts, Jonnie working and training for triathlons, swimming at Walden every morning, Emily working, the girls in school. They camped with friends at Yellowstone the next summer, 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 he died. Three parents, like dominos, gone.  The whole gang – Emily, her sister, their husbands, children, aunts, uncles, cousins – gathered again in the lake house, this time for Jim’s memorial, and stayed on afterward before heading to their homes in 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 hit by a pleasure boat 300 feet from shore; its prop severed his leg. Although one passenger in the boat was a doctor and tried to tie a tourniquet, Jonnie died before they could get him to the beach.

         I imagine myself standing on a second-floor wooden deck, my hand on the top rail, watching the little waves slap slap the gravel, hear the leaves rustle in the trees about to let summer go by. I can hear little girls’ laughter echoing in a tiled bathroom, feel warm steam on my temples.

          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 only that death stole their grandparents and then their father but left their mother and that no one can say why.

         I can’t see Emily’s face. It is because I see Chris’s face. Now I know that there is no reason at all why this happened to Jonnie and to Craig but not to Chris, this blinding 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 who would be in my life if I had designed not a son-in-law but a son. Death, the short straw, an instant of bad luck, misplaced karma, they are all suddenly everywhere and very near. My hands on the deck rail begin to tremble, don’t they, because now I can’t see Emily or Jonnie or Chris, only Amy’s face, my heart, my heart.

         Its beats are seconds apart, slow and drumlike, while I hold this terrible possibility in my mouth and stand here, blinking and looking at the backs of my hands on the rail. Now I know that this is why I have been so afraid, why I can’t talk anymore about Craig, or yet about Craig, why I put his letters away, 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 even Mack’s or – I can’t 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 only happen to people who are stupid and take risks, who abuse themselves, who shoot guns while drunk, drive speeding cars, 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 search out all remaining trite lines and set them on fire.

         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 undergoing treatment for Stage 4 cancer. I touch Mack’s warm self with my lips or my hands whenever I can; 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.

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