Thursday, August 31, 2006

Apparently, A Good Pay-off Doesn’t Pay

Some years ago, when I was an eager young novelist with a manuscript fresh from my tiny but hard-working laser printer, I followed the advice of anyone who knew anything about the business of selling novels and attended many more writers’ conferences and events than I do now.

It was not a bad tale; a darkly comic thriller about a troubled teenaged boy in quest of his biological father. A little intrigue, a little kidnapping, a little pyromania. A little rough around the edges, a lot embarrassing when I go back and read chunks of it now, but way back when it made some people laugh. And I wasn’t even paying them. I honed it with the help of my writing group, headed by a published author and professional writing teacher, I polished it thanks to the thorough reading by an on-line acquaintance (whose risotto recipe kicks butt, by the way). I thought I was ready for the big time and kept poking away at my list of intended agents despite rejection after rejection.

The worst rejections were the ones that I got in person. Mostly at writers’ conferences, when I’d present my carefully-honed sentence that’s supposed to represent the entire novel (and I don’t write short or simple novels) and be met with the typical sequence of events: 1. The blank stare; 2. The beat of silence; 3. Something like, “that’s not my thing,” or “I can’t sell that,” or “it doesn’t grab me around the throat” (this from an agent I really wanted to grab around the throat).

The face-to-face slam that stuck with me the longest was my first, at a writers’ conference in Westchester (the one I often refer to as “the day I met Ben Cheever,” rather than “the day I got cut off at the knees). Most of the day was fun – going from workshop to workshop, meeting and commiserating with other writers, and although in Ben Cheever’s keynote he was a bit pessimistic about the market (at that time in his career, even being John Cheever’s son didn’t guarantee him a pass to publishing), he was an entertaining speaker and not a schmuck when you talked to him in person. The real fun came later. On the schedule was a workshop class where you could pitch your novel to a real live agent! (I’d never seen one before, but had seen a lot of their work – mostly preprinted postcards and letters indicating that I should have taken my mother’s advice and gone into advertising, or that for a first time novelist, my work was remarkably free from typographical errors.)

When it was finally my turn to see the Great and Powerful Oz, I steadied my knees, willed my palms to stop sweating and talked to her. I didn’t even get the pitch out before she stopped me and asked about the history of the work. I guess that if you’ve already been to a lot of publishers, it limits where they can go. No publishers, I said, but I did have a lot of rejections from agents.

“You might want to try a writer’s group,” she said.

While something inside me withered, I kept the smile on my face and gave her my pitch.

Instead of the blank stare, I got a frown. “Comedy doesn’t sell,” she said.

And then she moved on to somebody else. And left me standing there, blinking stupidly. Comedy doesn’t sell? Didn’t Dave Barry have a Pulitzer? Didn’t John Irving sell a lot of novels? Kurt Vonnegut? For Christ’s sake. Dissing not just a genre, but an entire category of entertainment?

I couldn’t believe it. I refused to believe it. And I kept on trying to sell the thing. I got a few more similar comments. Including one that completely baffled me. I’d sent the first three chapters to an agent, who actually took the time (or asked her assistant to take the time) to write back a hand-written rejection: “Your writing is really funny, but I can’t sell this.”

Huh? Didn’t I just sell her? Or was it the pyromaniac romance-novelist mother character that was giving her the problem?

I’ll never know.

Eventually I had enough of the rejections and stopped, too engrossed in my next book to keep bothering.

And life went on.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I signed on to an on-line outfit that paid for written content. Not much money, but some exposure, you could keep your rights or give them the exclusive, and they would consider any type of writing for publication. As long as it met their submission requirements.

So as a test, I sent them not my best stuff but a somewhat funny op-ed piece that I’d banged out a few months earlier.

And yesterday I got an answer.

“We have declined to pay for this piece; we don’t often pay for humor or op-ed pieces because they fail to generate enough traffic. But feel free to submit this for non-payment and we’ll post it right away.”

So the old thing about comedy not selling translates into the new media as well.

If I was feeling feistier or actually gave a damn about the twenty dollars or so they might have paid me if they felt the thing would generate enough traffic, I might research the number of hits Dave Barry’s blog gets or get some handle on the number of e-mail jokes that flutter around the web on any given day.

But it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

I’ll just keep my head down, and keep writing, and if people laugh, that’s a good thing. We could all use a good laugh, right?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another Trip Around the Sun

At 7:30 this morning, I strapped on my space suit and embarked on my forty-sixth orbit.

Common American folklore says that the milestone birthdays, the ones that end in zeros, are supposed to be the hard ones. For these you get the parties, the balloons, the special birthday cards that make jokes about your age. But those didn’t bother me so much. The twenty-fives, the thirty fives were, and – gulp – the forty-fives are a bitch. Because it bumps me up a demographic box. Once advertisers wanted me to spend my disposable dollars on beer and impractical footwear, I’m now in the target market for wrinkle-blasting cosmetics, bladder-control medication and comfortable shoes.

Holy Christ.

Thirty didn’t bother me. In some parts of life, women in their thirties – solid, responsible, know what they want - are taken more seriously than ones in their twenties, who are often seen as flighty and fickle.

I know that I was. Damn, I did some stupid things in my twenties, most notably my early twenties. Most of them I’ve forgiven myself for. Some of which have consequences I will carry with me the rest of my life. But that’s part of life, isn’t it?

In fact, I loved being thirty. I could finally tuck that piece of my younger adulthood behind me. I had a decent job and a decent boss, my own car, had paid off at least the financial debts from my days of irresponsibility. I stood tall with my cellophaned auburn hair (not gray enough yet to warrant stronger measures), could climb a mountain, spelunk a cave, weather an injury, down a margarita, write a novel. The vat of wrinkle cream my aunt sent me as a present only made me frown for a second, then I laughed it away and drove to Boston for the weekend.

The approach of my fortieth I took as a challenge. At first, I mourned the potential end of my “babe” years. Thought I’d have to tuck away the white denim bustier, the lycra miniskirt, have to learn to deal with the “Era of Invisibility,” when teenaged boys practically walk right through you because you seem to no longer exist. Too gray now for the band-aid of a cellophane treatment, I had to go for the hard stuff to maintain my “natural” color. To combat this, I joined Weight Watchers to take off the pounds I’d let accumulate (not that many, but with so much diabetes in my family, even a few extra could increase the odds of onset). Because, damn it, I wasn’t going quietly into invisiblehood.

And then I realized “babe” isn’t a number. It’s not a dress size, or a hair color, or a body fat ratio. It’s all in your head. And then I kicked myself for not knowing this in my twenties and thirties. And I put on a sexy top from H&M and went to fortieth birthday party with my auburn head held high.

And things have been going steadily downhill since. No. I take that back. Not “downhill.” There are just more facts of getting older to weather. More passages to pass. More hills to climb.

But still a part of me remains optimistic. That I’ll navigate through this meteor shower and then fifty will be fabulous.

So here’s to another orbit. Let’s hope this one has fewer asteroids.

Hey…who’s that babe in the space capsule?

A Pain in the Ass

This is not the blog I wanted to write this morning, but I’m so pissed off I can’t see straight, so I apologize in advance for any instances of moronic sentence structure.

Two weeks ago, I had a consultation and exam with Dr. Pain Shot (AKA “God”), an appointment that took three weeks to get, about getting what is called a “lumbar branch nerve block.” It may not even work, but it’s the best chance I’m staring at right now for me to go about my life without having to pop Motrin every four hours for at least long enough so that my physical therapy treatments can be used to strengthen my back and let me heal instead of wasting them laying on heat packs on his table so he can do even the mildest of adjustments.

When I left said appointment, I was told that “once my chart was processed and they hear from my insurance company,” the “procedure” could be scheduled.

I called a week later and they didn’t have the approval yet. I let it go a few days. And the pain kept getting worse. Lots of rain and stress from being suddenly unemployed and not sleeping is also making the pain worse.

I’ve had enough of this shit so this morning I called my insurance company.

They don’t have anything from Dr. God’s office proving that I even exist.

So I called Dr. God again. (something is wrong, in an office with one doctor, when every time I call I get a different assistant on the phone) I told Assistant A that my insurance company has no record of my claim. She said she didn’t have my chart, which means I “wasn’t ready to be scheduled yet.”

“When do you think you’ll have my chart?” I asked.

She didn’t know. But said if I gave her my number, she’d call me back.

Well, I know how that works.

“No,” I said. “Can I please talk to someone who can tell me where my chart is?”

“Hold on,” she said, a little frosty.

Note that I really, really hate to be a hard-ass to staff. Or to anyone who answers the phone in general. I know these people work hard and probably aren’t paid well and often it isn’t their fault that I’m not getting what I want. But pain makes people do strange things. Pain that contributes to getting people fired and to the ruination of their daily lives makes them do strange things like get a little PISSED OFF that it takes WEEKS to just get an appointment for a procedure that MIGHT make a little bit of difference.

Then she came back. “We just got your dictation back so we’ll submit the claim to your insurance company today.”

I let this settle a beat. Because I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “Excuse me? My dictation? You can’t even send my claim in until the DICTATION is done in my chart?”

“That’s how long our company takes,” she said, without a trace of apology in her voice.

“That’s how you deal with people in pain?” I said.

“That’s how long our company takes,” she said. Then brightened up. “But we’re submitting your claim today and then we’ll schedule you as soon as possible.”

I was out of steam at this point. I’d had a crappy night and it’s my birthday (more on this later) and I didn’t want to wind myself up and make myself feel worse on my birthday. So I thanked her and hung up.

Meanwhile I take more Motrin, do deep breathing, try to do whatever exercises don’t hurt too much, and wait.

And they wonder why people go ballistic. Well, if you read in the papers that a distraught patient firebombed a doctor’s office in Kingston, I hope one of you will take up a collection bail me out.

We can always blame it on my medication.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Betting the House

Yet more evidence has surfaced that the Golden Age of the American Empire is on the wane (like Anna Nicole Smith isn’t enough of a clue). You can bet on how much monetary damage a pending natural disaster (or, for those big spenders, on an entire hurricane season) will inflict by putting your money into hedge funds that invest in property catastrophe reinsurance companies. That’s the Wall Street way. It’s also legal. But if your morals are a little more fluid, and you don’t want to get that specific (say, you just want to plunk down a quick bet on how many Category Three storms will hit the US this year), you can place a “hurricane bet” at on-line casinos.

According to an AP article, (read the rest of the article at “U.S. casinos do not offer hurricane bets, and the Justice Department says online gambling is illegal, but that doesn't stop devotees, a few thousand of whom have placed hurricane wagers with online casinos based in other countries.

‘Betting on baseball gets boring. You're looking for a little action every now and then,’ said Ken Moore, who plunked down $75 in hurricane bets. ‘Betting on the hurricanes, I couldn't resist it.'

Moore, a graphic designer from Quincy, Mass., will make a profit of about $72.50 if exactly two hurricanes of Category 3 or higher strike the United States this season. He will make $5 if one hits. If none hit or three or more hit, he loses. Category 3 storms have sustained winds of at least 111 mph.”

Which is pretty damned sad, considering the number of people on the Gulf Coast still living in FEMA trailers. How much you want to bet that Ray Nagen is Googling around under an assumed name trying to get a piece of that action?

I was talking about this with Husband and he said, “But America was founded on gambling.”

And I suppose he’s right. Columbus, backed by Isabel and Ferdinand’s bounty, bet that he could find a westward route to Asia and bring back the riches it held. Even after his famous voyages landed him in the Caribbean and thereabouts, he still believed that he’d found Asia. So it not only proves that the New World was founded on a bet but that some people will believe anything.

That was the way of the explorer. Taking off to the Great Unknown on someone else’s dime then giving the backer a split of the bounty. Then those who followed to colonize gambled high stakes for their voyages – with their lives, with their livelihoods, with their futures. Some made it, some didn’t. That’s the roll of the dice for the promise of streets filled with gold and a life without somebody sweeping through your village on a regular basis and cutting your head off with a scimitar.

When did this promise of a better life devolve into a culture that created the National Enquirer and Brittany Spears? When did a sea of polite men in shirtsleeves and hats at sports stadiums become a beer-spilling mob that sets fire to cars when their team wins?

I’m still pondering this one. But it’s probably a safe bet that you can put money down on the answer at an on-line casino based in Bangkok.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fun With Words

All right, I know this is a TOTAL cop-out blog entry, and I apologize, but it's raining and my back hurts and I barely slept last night and I really needed something somewhat funny and a former colleague e-mailed these to me and I didn't have the energy to write something original (maybe I'm suffering the aftermath of the decafelon (#13, below). ) Enjoy. I'm going downstairs now to bang my head gently against the front door and howl.


Here is the Washington Post's Mensa Invitational which once again asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition.

The 2005 winners are:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying (or building) a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize that it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

11. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

12. Karmageddon: It's when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, and then the Earth explodes and it's a serious bummer.

13. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you

14. Glibido: All talk and no action.

15. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

16. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

17. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

18. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words.

And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. the person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. to attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-Nilly, adj. impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. to walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. a rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. a humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. a Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. the belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Poke in the "Eye"

The powers-that-be at CBS have been sniffing too much copier toner. Or a competing network put something in the water coolers. Because something is really, really wrong.

First, many CBS affiliates are planning to air a “controversial” update of the 2002 documentary on 9/11 made by two filmmakers who coincidentally were following around a rookie New York firefighter the day the towers fell. During the course of the disaster, some of the rescue workers are – oh, my heavens – swearing. Using, in the words of one rather prissy-sounding FCC censor interviewed on NPR this morning, the “F” word and the “S” word. In this age of thousands and thousands of dollars in fines for a brief flash of a partially naked breast, there is an argument raging whether or not the network should bleep out the profanity, leave it in for the sake of context, or bleep out the profanity and in addition, pixilate the speakers’ mouths so that lip-readers can’t tell what they’re saying. Some of the smaller affiliates have been hinky about even airing the documentary, because they can’t afford the potential fines. Come on now. If several billion tons of concrete were tumbling down around you, would you be watching your language? And more importantly, does anyone get that the real profanity here is not a few stupid words but that a bunch of terrorists flew into the two tallest buildings in Manhattan and killed thousands of people? Anyone?

What the f***? (Original script censored by FCC, and the speaker’s mouth has been pixilated like Richard Hatch’s crotch on “Survivor.”)

And speaking of “Survivor.” This is my second clue that CBS should stand for “the Competition is Beating us to Smithereens so we have to do something drastic."

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’m a johnny-come-lately Survivor fan, since about Season 8 or so. Most reality shows are abominations, but this one, American Idol, and The Amazing Race have caught my attention.

But apparently, Mark Burnett and CBS feel that they have to do anything it takes to attract more attention.

OK, it was kind of cute when they divided up the men against the women. And a little bit more interesting, last season, when they broke up the contestants into four tribes: older men, older women, younger men and younger women. And the dynamic played out about how I figured: the older women, and older men initially, kicked ass because they are smart, strong, and can work together as a team. The younger men flamed out because (no judgment against young men implied, it’s just my observation of what happens when you get a bunch of young guys in a group situation) each one wanted to be Top Dog. The young women flamed out because they similarly were all out for themselves yet still had this need to seek everyone’s approval and advice. It was fascinating to watch it unroll. Ultimately, the top two came down to a young guy (a yoga instructor) and an older guy (a studly fighter pilot) and I’m not sure how the young guy won other than the older guy was a classic Alpha Dog and made a few too enemies along the way.

Now comes this season. Various media outlets, probably fueled by Mark Burnett’s massive ego, have been leaking the latest “twist” the game is planning to use to divvy up the contestants for the upcoming match beginning some time in mid-September. You might have heard about this by now. There will be four “tribes:” one African-American, one Hispanic, one Asian-American, and one white.

As anyone who watches Survivor knows, eventually the tribes are all merged and it’s every man (or woman) for themselves and all bets are off, but is it really necessary to start this way? In a culture already so racially sensitive that riots and public appearances by Al Sharpton can be caused by the dampest of tinder, is this the best way Burnett and (nudge-wink) CBS can come up with to get ratings? OK, I get that after thirteen seasons they want to keep the format from becoming stale, but come on. They’re just inviting trouble.

But perhaps that’s what they want.

Hell, if they want to stir up a little trouble, why not really go for it? Here are the tribal divisions I would really like to see:

1. Shades of the 2000 election! Let’s have four teams composed of democrats, republicans, Ralph Nader and people from Florida, and see who’s left standing at the end. Anyone who appeals the jury’s final choice to the Supreme Court will be disqualified, must grow a beard and go underground for the next three years.
2. Can you say “jihad?” Guarantee more eyeballs for the Eye with a quartet of classic rivals and end the civil war in Iraq at the same time. Shiites against Kurds against Sunnis and Baathists against the US government. No fair using poison gas. Whoever wins the week’s challenge picks one loser who will spend the night in Syria, searching for WMDs. Present a WMD at the next tribal council and you are guaranteed immunity in the next vote, as well as a book deal and an interview with Dan Rather.
3. As long as the game of Survivor is “Lord of the Flies” come to life anyway, let’s go back to the vulnerability of the high school social structure. Teams of jocks against nerds against dope heads against Everyone Else Who Didn’t Fit In Anywhere. Winner gets to star in the next Not Another Teen Movie, where he or she will get what’s coming to them, depending on their original social status, and sleep with Lindsay Loan or Freddy Prinze, Jr, depending on their orientation.
4. My God Can Kick Your God’s Ass – Pit Catholics against Jews against Buddhists against Muslims. Come on, admit you always wanted to see this in action. Winner gets to post their basic rules of life in the courthouse of their choice. Sorry, Unitarians are not allowed. Because competition against other religions isn’t a tenet of their humanistic practices. And if you put them on the jury, they’d never stop talking.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Call Me A Rebel, Call Me What You Will

As part of my physical therapy “homework,” I walk three times a day. (Before you start thinking I’m some kind of Amazon Woman, these are not very long walks, and I’m not exactly burning rubber.)

And when you walk three times a day, the same old routes begin to get, well, old. The treadmill is a fallback in the bad weather and first thing in the morning, when I don’t feel like getting in the car (I live near the crest of a veritable mountain – popping out the door for a quick walk around the ‘hood is not in my cards right now). But at least once a day, I like to walk outside. I mix things up a little. A quaint, verdant neighborhood nearby if I want to lose myself in the spray of flowers and pretty houses. A road in the woods with some rolling hills if I want more of a challenge, but not enough to make me sore for several days. (There are other places I can go to do that, if I’m feeling especially perky and foolhardy.) And if I need to be around people and activity, I like to go to the local track.

I haven’t been there too often lately, because I’m trying to get more hills into my life, because often it’s not convenient to drive 20 minutes there and back in the middle of the day if I have appointments in the afternoon. But last night I was out having an early dinner and I wasn’t too far away from the track and it just felt right to toddle over there for an evening constitutional before heading home. I was already dressed for it – for dinner I’d just popped a dressier cardigan over my pink t-shirt, gray knit pants and walking shoes.

The track wasn’t crowded, odd for 6:30 on a beautiful Wednesday evening. I slipped into my usual lane in my usual direction (why is it that humans naturally want to point counter-clockwise when they’re in a situation that calls for locomotion in circles?) I noticed several people running the other way but shrugged them off. I wasn’t in any of their lanes and it’s a quarter-mile track: enough sight distance so you’d have to be running as fast as Michael Johnson or completely lost in the clouds in order to smack into anyone. So I didn’t think about it. Until I was passed by pot-bellied, sour-faced, middle-aged gentleman running in the opposite direction.

He gave me a dirty look.

Whatever, I thought. Maybe, like some runners who don’t want to be running, they think that everybody out there should be running. Misery loving company and all that. Then on the next lap, he came up upon me again, and this time a pre-teen boy was on lap 1, running counterclockwise like me.

“Hey,” the man called out to the boy. “You’re going the wrong way. Today we’re supposed to be running clockwise.”

And the boy obediently changed directions. Oh, right, I thought. The sign. They put up that sign on the chain link fence around the track, some year or so ago, outlining which direction they wanted you to run on which day. A lot of dads came there with their kids, so I assumed that the young man was his son, or else why would he be so pliant? (Nearly every kid I know, if you told them that, would sneer at you and keep on running.)

And after that I didn’t think about either of them anymore. It was a nice night, nothing was hurting, I was walking my requisite 15 minutes (3 laps worth, for those who are keeping score). Nobody seemed to be bumping into anyone (as several of us were running/walking in the “wrong” direction) and all seemed fine.

I finished at about the same time he did. And as I was walking off toward the parking area, I heard him talking to a couple of old duffers who were hanging around the picnic tables under the overhang where, during high school football games, the boosters sell hotdogs and programs.

“Hey,” he said. “One of you guys work here?”

“Yeah,” one of them said.

He was really winding himself up with outrage. “Well, you might as well take that sign down, the one that tells people which way to go on what days, because apparently nobody pays attention to it. And my tax dollars went into renovating this stadium and now everyone’s gonna screw it up again. Some people are just rebels.”

I didn’t hear the maintenance guy’s response. But I hope it was something like “get a life.”

Because that’s what I was thinking. Yeah. The three laps I walk in the “wrong” direction, say, every four weeks or so is really going to cause a lot of wear and tear on the Vibram. And then I thought, “Hey, that guy thinks I’m a rebel.”

I pulled myself up a little taller.

I’m a rebel.

Don’t let the pink t-shirt fool you.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass

Yesterday I was in town, and even though I didn’t have the means necessary to pick up my office chair (Husband plus Jeep haven’t both been available on a Physical Therapy day, so my PT could adjust said chair, and…ahh, it’s just too complicated), I thought at least I’d swing by and pick up the smaller things I’d left behind. My spiffy trackball, the exercise mats in the closet, et cetera.

I brought a couple of bags to make this chore easier.

But when I got there, it had already been done for me. The desk had been swept clean and all my stuff – the trackball, the Palm cradle, my footrest, the things from the drawer (hand lotion, various pain-relieving gels, dried fruit and almonds) had been packed in a box and shoved into the corner of the office.

And I know the job was beneath me, and I was unhappy there, and it was a good thing to leave. Intellectually I know all that stuff, but in that instant, seeing the box in the corner, seeing the evidence of somebody already working at “my” old desk (and quite settled in, it seemed), made me feel like garbage. Something bagged up and ready to go out with the trash.

So I made the Prince of Darkness carry everything out to my car.

I hope he pulled a muscle.

No. I don’t really hope that. I just want to move forward, absorb the lessons I needed to learn, and forget the rest.

But maybe one day I’ll get to kill him off in a book.

I used to think, as I leaned against the catwalk railing during my water breaks at the lighting company job, when I was at my most overworked, my most miserable, my most ready to arc, that one day this has to be in a book, and of course, someone would have to die. (a coworker and I used to joke about what we’d do at the company when we’d had too much pressure and arc’ed out (a lighting term for “going postal.”) My favorite scenario was stealing a forklift and driving it through the plate glass conference room wall, hopefully taking a few suits out with me.) (Fictionally, of course. Don’t go setting the cops on my tail, for Christ’s sake) I tried writing about it shortly after I’d left, but it wasn’t coming out the way I wanted. It was kind of sitcom-ish, kind of wimpy. Because I’d forgotten a lesson I’d learned earlier in my writing life. The best perspective comes after you’ve been away from a place for a while. I couldn’t write about Syracuse until long after I’d moved away. (Although I did have to return for a few days just to confirm a few details). I couldn’t write about Boston until I’d left (the follow-up research was far less disappointing). I couldn’t write as well about 60s leftover-nouveau-Jews I worked for in Woodstock until after my job with them dissolved along with their company (for obvious reasons).

The Prince of Darkness is going to have to wait his turn.

Because right now I’m too busy trying to imagine the way the breaking glass would sound when you ram a forklift through a conference room wall.

Friday, August 18, 2006

TC Boyle “Talks” to Me

Well, not literally. OK, he did once, which I’ll get to in a few paragraphs. But I’m really enjoying his latest novel, “Talk Talk.” True to form, with the theme of this one – the consequences of identity theft - he’s thrown a bull’s-eye through the current zeitgeist of American culture. Boyle’s writing has impressed me on several fronts over the years. For one, despite his meaty prose, zeal for obscure language and his one character per book (usually) who tends to hail from fictional Peterskill (in Westchester County, New York, where he was raised), one just don’t find the recurring themes that so many prolific novelists slip into as they get into that third, fourth, fifth tome. Every book is different. He seems comfortable moving from historical fiction (in my opinion, his best work) to contemporary, from female POV protagonists to male, to basing stories on unpopular or controversial figures (for instance, Dr. Alfred Kinsey in “The Inner Circle”) to taking the seemingly heart-of-gold bleeding hearts and showing the world their callous hypocrisy (eg the liberal in the gated community who accidentally runs over a Mexican migrant worker in “The Tortilla Curtain”). And his short stories are good, too. (He was the reason I subscribed to the New Yorker. Well, that, and for the cartoons.) One doesn’t often find a writer who is equally proficient at short and long fiction. Often, like Philip Roth or Norman Mailer, the novels are good but the shorts…well, somehow feel like they would have preferred to be longer. Like they are cramming too much real estate into a 10,000-word box. As a writer who wishes she had the same sort of versatility (I’m more comfortable with the long form; often my shorts read like launching pads for novels), I admire him for that talent.

In my opinion, his best novel is one of his earliest (and worth the search and the time if you can find it; not that I think awards mean a whole lot but it won the PEN/Faulkner award for 1988), titled “World’s End.” It’s set in Boyle’s native Westchester County in three different and volatile periods of American history: the very early colonial era, when New York’s Hudson Valley Dutch settlers were being usurped by the British; the 40’s, when Communism was reaching its fingers into the working class; and the era of the Vietnam “conflict.” It follows the same two families in each era. One family has always worked for the other. And off we go.. He also does an excellent job of developing empathy for the antagonists – the big bad, “suit” of the Vietnam era has this psychological problem called pica, when you are compelled to eat dirt. I’ve got to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen a literary character with this particular trait.

Another early novel (1988 or so) worth the search is “Water Music,” a fictionalized account of the travails of Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer. What I liked best was how he showed the protagonist’s conflict between the love waiting for him at home and the lure of his quest for Victoria Falls.

Among his recent work, “Drop City” had some interesting characters and situations (set in the Summer of Love days, the conflict when a hippie commune, evicted from their free and comfortable digs, moves to Alaska and has to exist side-by-side with the natives, who aren’t too happy they’ve arrived), but went on a bit too long.

And I expected more from “The Inner Circle.” Since he’s so good at resurrecting historical “villains,” (think “The Road to Wellville” – the book, not the godawful Matthew Broderick movie butchered out of it), I was eagerly awaiting this one. As always, I liked the writing. I liked the characters. I liked the setup. But something bothered me. A critic from (I think) People Magazine touched on it briefly and clumsily – that for a book about sex, it wasn’t very “sexy.” And I know (and Boyle knows) that this is the impression the book was supposed to leave – that in the microanalysis of Human Sexual Behavior, all the romance is drained clean out of it so all you’re left with is body parts and heart rates and respiration. This was meant to be portrayed in the mind of his young protagonist, Milk, who is tugged between his brand-new marriage to the girl of his dreams and his burgeoning career as a scientist. Being taken under Kinsey’s wing is intoxicating. But his wife (that bitch!) wants romance. So does Milk – but he’s fallen under Kinsey’s spell. Now this is the core of what really irked me. At heart Milk is romantic man, who in essence has fallen in love with Kinsey. Yet when Kinsey takes Milk into his bed (all in the name of science, of course), we get NOTHING from Boyle. To use the movie cliché, at the first embrace he pans up into the trees. And that pissed me off. As a reader, I felt cheated. And I felt that this was beneath him. Hey, if I’ve got to sweat out what’s going on my characters’ heads during the sex scenes, then he should have to as well. And I’m not even published.

But I recovered.

Fortunately, when I talked to Boyle, it was before I read “The Inner Circle.” He had done a reading at the former (sniff) Ariel Bookstore in nearby New Paltz, just when the book came out. I’d seen his book jacket picture, but this was the first time I’d seen him in person. He looked like the average punk poet you might see on Venice Beach (in fact, he now lives in California, teaches at USC). Black rubber bracelets, Chuck Taylor cons, black jeans, slogan t-shirt, mean little black shades tucked into the collar, multiple piercings on both ears. Hair sticking up in variegated Alpine peaks thanks to some product that is currently not allowed on airplanes.

Not exactly your average novelist.

And not your average reading, either. He’s said in interviews that that the public reading of literary fiction doesn’t have to be the dry and artless experience one has grown to expect, one which has lead readers to think literary fiction is probably good for them but one great big yawn. He throws a little performance into it.

And when the “performance” was done, I asked as many questions during the Q&A as his handlers would allow. Then I got on line to get my book signed. When he got to me, I said one of the things I like best about his writing is that he always sends me to the dictionary. He gave me the once over, cocked one eyebrow, smirked, then signed my book in Latin.


But so far, “Talk Talk” is redeeming him in my estimation. Just having the imagination and courage to employ a deaf protagonist is interesting enough to keep me reading.

This time, the villain is from Peterskill.

Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Disorder In The Court

If you’re of a certain age (say, 30 to mid 40s), you might remember a little featurette of Saturday morning cartoons called “Schoolhouse Rock.” Using animation, these bits taught multiplication, grammar, etc. all set to music. Around that time, it was a popular educational fad that kids would learn better if the lessons were set to music, something they were naturally attuned to anyway (and especially so considering the concurrent popularity of the Jackson Five, the Archies, and other bubble-gum rock bands). It might have been successful. I just found them kind of stupid. But my favorites were the ones about how the government works. (“I’m just a bill, just a lonely old bill, and I’m sitting here on Capital Hill…”) To this day I can only remember the preamble to the Constitution by singing it. (“We the people…in order to form a more perfect union…”)

Which in a way is kind of sad.

But not sadder than the fact that I heard today. In a recent Zogby poll (as reported on NPR this morning), it was found that more people could name the Three Stooges (Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, right?) than the three houses of the US government. More people could name two of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs than two members of the Supreme Court.

Apparently these people were not watching “Schoolhouse Rock.”

Scarier still is that these people are American citizens who vote.

Which strengthens my argument that if you don’t know how your government is constructed and who is running it and basically what you’re voting for, then you shouldn’t be allowed within a hundred yards of a polling place.

So I propose the following: At the end of January, when we get those dreaded giant packets of tax forms, we should also get a pamphlet outlining how the US government functions, who the players are, and a summary of the important legislation currently on the table. It’s only right. If you own stock, every year you are sent an annual report indicating to you how they’re doing, who is running the operation and how much money they made. And every year or so, depending on how often they have a stockholder’s meeting, you are invited to vote on certain issues vital to the operation the company such as approving the Board of Directors.

Yet we (grumblingly, albeit) send our taxes off every April 15th to some post office box corresponding to the state we live in (except you lucky people living in Florida, but the penalty is exacted from your hide in other ways), and many of us don’t have a flying clue what is really being done with it – who gets it, who doesn’t get it, and why.

If I own a piece of this corporation, I want accountability. I want an annual report on the operations of the United States Government. If I’m being asked to vote on the Board of Directors, I want information. I want a little org chart of everyone who’s in charge. None of this State of the Union misty-eyed glad-handing crap. I want numbers. I want projections. I want to know, in detail, what you’ve been up to down in Washington. Hey, make it a comic book. Make a video and set it to music. Hook it on Phonics. Or whatever the current educational fad happens to be.

And then, about two months before election, send around a little questionnaire, similar to the census, quizzing us on what we’ve learned.

If you pass, you get to vote.

If not, sorry. Watch “Schoolhouse Rock” and try again next November.

Or, if you refuse the quiz on libertarian grounds but are one of those people who doesn’t know who their congressperson is, then simply stay home. Watch a DVD of the Stooges.

You might learn something.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Proverbial Second Shoe

I lost my job on Friday. That sounds like such a strange turn of phrase, doesn’t it? Like it’s an ID card or a set of keys, something tangible that one could misplace. Perhaps it could have wiggled its way into a tear in a purse lining, or fallen through a hole in one’s pocket.

Because it just can’t get up and walk away, can it?

It can. While you are thinking about leaving, it can simply leave you.

And I had been thinking about leaving. For a long time. Without really thinking about it. No. Without really letting myself think about it. This is what I thought about: That the long days were exhausting, but I would get used to them. That it was a “challenge” working with The P of D, but I would rise above it. That maybe I was getting scut work now, but sooner or later, once I proved my value, that would change. That once my boss had her baby, her moods would be less mercurial. That as I learned the job and what was expected of me, I’d make fewer mistakes.

And then I came home on Wednesday, after leaving work at 4:30. My back had bothering me all week, since I’d aggravated my existing pain-in-the-ass problem the Saturday previous by taking a hillier walk than I was ready for. (It was a beautiful day and I wanted to go outside and have a nice walk through the woods like normal people, damn it.) So I spent most of Sunday in “commando rehab” mode (ice, walk, stretch; ice, walk, stretch) But like the woman who’d swallowed a fly in the old folk song, my physical dilemmas simply escalated. The pain caused me to miss work on Monday. Then came the fibro flare. Then came the tears. And as I was crying on Husband Wednesday evening, from the pain and the frustration of its seeming endlessness, a tiny voice floated into my head. Ringing as clear as silver fork tine tapping a crystal goblet.

It said, “Your job is making you miserable. You are not appreciated. Not once have you heard the words ‘thank you,’ in the whole three months you’ve been there.”

My, those voices can be chatty once they get going, can’t they?

I told Husband. And he said, “So look for another job. I mean, while you still have this one.”

And I nodded. It made sense. But somehow it felt like quitting. And the tiny flame of Wonder Woman I keep trying to keep in check hates to quit.

Then I went to work on Thursday. I was improving physically, through the healing powers of time and also knowing that that afternoon I was finally, finally having my PT appointment. Even if sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, just knowing that I’ll soon be in good hands can make me feel a little better.

And then my boss asked to see me before I left.

Which is never good. When I came in she asked me to take a seat at her conference table. Which is also never good.

She asked how I thought I was doing. This is code which, for anyone who has worked for other people for enough years of their adult life knows, means you’re about to get your ass canned but I’m giving you a token shot to explain yourself.

I mentioned some of my concerns. The communication problems, the steep learning curve problems, the inheriting-a-project-that-was-a-huge-fucking-mess problems, the personnel problems. And never once did I blame anyone else for my own mistakes (Thinking maybe this would buy me some stand-up-guy points. And it also seemed like the right thing to do.)

Because, goddamn it, I couldn’t be fired again. Not twice it one year. I didn’t know if I could handle it. (I know, Highlander, you’re snorting and about to call me a rank amateur. But I bet your first half-dozen or so weren’t so easy.)

Anyway, nothing I said mattered.

I wasn’t working out, she said. I had disappointed her. Anyone with 20 years’ experience shouldn’t be making so many mistakes. And she detailed every one and how much it cost the company. She needed someone more dependable and who could work full time, so she wouldn’t have to worry when she went out on maternity leave.

In my defense (which I thought but wouldn’t dare say), she did NOT tell me she was pregnant when she hired me (she wasn’t showing yet). If I’d known, perhaps I wouldn’t have taken the job. Been there, done that, and my chiropractor earned a lot of money for it. And I’d told her when I started that I could only work part time until my doctor cleared me for more.

But as I’m sitting there absorbing each blow (and drawing up every ounce of strength in my body not to cry) I’m also thinking, “I can’t be fired again. I can’t be fired again.”

“I know I can do better,” I said. “If you give me another chance to prove myself.”

I didn’t regret the words then. Wonder Woman was sitting on my chest holding her hand over my mouth.

She thought for a moment, uncertainty in her eyes. When she finally spoke, it was to give me another week. But that was the best she could do, she said. She had to make personnel decisions and she had to make them fast.

And at PT, Tom was his usual upbeat, supportive self. “If you don’t like the job anyway, just go back in Monday and quit. Leave with your pride intact.”

But I wasn’t a quitter.

I called my stepmother Gladys that evening and told her what happened. I told her I’d asked for the week extension. She listened, and there was a pause (I imagine she was taking a deep breath) and said, “But is that what you really want?”

I think I said yes. No. Maybe I said I just wanted to quit.

She suggested I check about the unemployment situation first. Just to be practical. (because in New York, you’re only eligible for unemployment if you are involuntarily terminated)

And later that night the voice said…no, it screamed, “GET OUT.”

That morning I found out that I was still eligible for seven and a half weeks of unemployment at my old rate from earlier that year…which was more than I was making at my soon-not–to-be-current part-time job. And with a little coaching from an acquaintance of my mother’s, who used to be an employment specialist, I had all the ammunition and politically correct lingo I needed.

And then I drove to my soon-to-be-ex-office, picked up my week’s check, and told my boss that I decided to simply accept termination. And in return for making this easy on her (code for: I won’t ask for severance or sue your ass for firing me for health reasons) and giving her as much time as possible to find someone new, could we agree on the reason for my job separation – basically, not that I fucked up, but the requirements of the job had changed. And put it in writing.

And she agreed.

And with P of D gloating from behind his latte, I left. Without tears. With my head high. Feeling somehow that I wasn’t fired, that I wasn’t quitting, but I had chosen to leave.

I felt…not like crying, although I had a box of tissues on my front seat just in case. I felt like doing something celebratory and defiant. Like getting stinky drunk. But on my current medications, I’d probably go into a coma. I knew that I’d run through the usual gamut of emotions soon enough, but in that moment, I just did a few ordinary things. I went to the credit union, because the money needed to go into my account. Then I went to the grocery store, because I was out of oatmeal.

After all, there would still be a tomorrow, and I’d need something for breakfast.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Back to where?

As anyone who shops in actual brick-and-mortar stores, reads newspapers, pays attention to their mail or watches television knows, the North American Advertising/Marketing Calendar runs about one to two months ahead of the traditional Gregorian calendar. Halloween is in early September. Thanksgiving falls in the middle of October, with Christmas immediately afterward, followed by Valentine’s Day, which occurs while your tree is still decorated, to keep your mind off that post-holiday let-down by offering the endorphin rush of the promise of love and chocolate.

So it follows that “Back to School” time officially started about a week ago. And, if I’m interpreting the hidden messages in the commercials correctly, you are so relieved that the little tykes are finally getting out of your hair that you would gladly spend $600 on a new laptop for Junior’s fall semester, or the equivalent of about as much on trendy jeans, backpacks, sneakers and other vital school supplies. If not, you are considered a Bad Parent. And worse, if for some reason you do not pay attention to the ads for the trendy expensive jeans and sneakers and cop out by buying the geeky stuff (like the year my mother insisted on buying us Sears “Toughskins” jeans because they were just as good as Levis but about half the price – it’s OK, Mom, I’ve forgiven you) you might as well banish your child to the nerd table for the rest of their educational careers.

Really. They aren’t called “Toughskins” because they wear well. It’s because they help you develop a tough skin from all the abuse you will take for wearing them to school.

But, as usual, I digress.

Anyway, with seeing the ads for back to school (and the break in the heat wave, finally!), I started thinking about all of the “back to schools” of my life. Husband and I have compared extensive notes on this topic over the years. While he dreaded the end of summer like a convict waiting to start his sentence, I was one of those weird children who looked forward to the new school year. Not that I loved school, per se. I was the little fat girl who got teased and bullied until I grew out of it in…probably my mid-thirties or so. But September always meant the hope of a fresh start. Fresh, clean pages in snappy new three-ring binders, fresh clean covers on my textbooks. A new beginning. A new teacher. The hope that the kids who teased me the most wouldn’t be in my class. The hope that my friends would. And new clothes. Especially, my favorites, brand new Bonnie Doon knee socks. (Which you just can’t find any more. Please someone, if you know where they are, tell me.) They were thick, and warm, and the only kind that went all the way to the knee and didn’t fall down.

And, I’m embarrassed to admit, the new fall television shows. Guess I was destined for a career in communications from a very young age.

Even as I went on to junior high and high school, the sparkle of that new calendar page didn’t dull. While there were new anxieties (Will I have a boyfriend this year? What if I forget my class schedule or my locker combination? Are people staring at my pimple? Am I wearing the wrong kind of jeans?) there were new challenges and joys – new routines, new subjects to learn, new after-school activities, new friends, the boys growing taller and cuter.

When I was done with school, moved to Boston and got a job, it was the first time in 16 years that I didn’t have a “back to school” to look forward to. It felt strange. Like I’d forgotten to do something. Like I was supposed to be somewhere else. Like I’d be walking across the Common and someone would tap me on the shoulder and say “aren’t you supposed to be in class, young lady?”

The next September, I filled the void by taking a night class. And for the next few years, I taught continuing ed.

So for a while I had a “back-to-school” to look forward to.

It’s been a number of years now since I taught or attended class. I’m no longer out shopping for new school supplies (though I do love the crackle of book bindings and the clean promise of a new journal) or hunting fruitlessly for Bonnie Doon knee socks. But I feel a kind of antsiness as September grows closer. An itch to fill my head with new knowledge, to upgrade my surroundings. Maybe it has more to do with the cool weather breaking the languor of August. The song of the cicadas reminding me that fall is around the corner and the end of the year is fast approaching.

Or it’s just old habits dying hard. (and some years dying harder than others)

Maybe I’ll Google up some Bonnie Doons and see what I can find…

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hot enough for WHOM?

I REALLY hate people who say, "hot enough for ya?"

To which, I wish I could sprout horns from my head, poke them with barbecue tongs and reply, in a demonic voice, "Actually, no. I'm just here on a brief vacation. I prefer it a little toastier, thanks, like home. I like it best when all I need to is hang a raw steak out my window to make dinner. I like it best when spit evaporates before it hits the ground. Maybe have a few little piles of burning brimstone scattered about for ambiance. All it does is make me miss my blessed underworld. Wanna come back with me?

Yeah. That ought to shut 'em up.

Or make them run.

Or make them call the cops, but then I can claim that I'm off my meds.

I hear that's the latest defense against bad behavior.

Bet Patrick Kennedy and Mel Gibson wished they'd thought of it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Getting small...and indignant

Some survey found that among the most recognizable scents, including Play-Doh, peanut butter and oranges, was crayons. I don't recall if this was Crayola Crayons or any generic pigmented stick of wax, but crayons only means one type to me.

And that's the Crayola 64-box with the flip-top lid and the built-in sharpener, of course.

The kind that melt in the sun and the kind that your best friend probably ruined because she pressed down way too hard and the kind that if the dog ate them...well, anyone who had a dog as a kid already knows the answer to that.

And last Sunday, when my beautiful, smart, creative small nieces, 6 and 3, were visiting Grandma Gladys and Papa, I was invited over to play, and waiting for me was not only my very own Cinderella coloring book but my very own box of Crayolas as well.

About the crayons, some things are the same. The smell, that feeling when you open a fresh new box to see that perfect rainbox of soldiers standing at attention, waiting to be put into service.

But somebody - and they know who they are - mucked around with the names of the colors. For some I applaud their creativity. "Blue" is now "cerulean." That sickly sort-of green-grape color that nobody wanted to use because it was way too pale and ugly is now called "Spring Green." which makes it slightly more appealing but still does not represent any color I've seen in the spring, except in a box of sprouts in the produce department, which is not very appealing to me at all. But Crayola has gone politically correct. "Flesh" is now "peach," which is a good thing, because as I explained to my older niece, one day it dawned on somebody at the Crayola factory (or maybe they got a bunch of angry letters) that not everybody's flesh is peach-colored. And the color names are now represented in three different languages, which not only expands Crayola's marketing reach but is a good lesson for kids.

Some would disagree. Some would claim that it represents the Balkanization of America and we should only have ONE language, and we ought to go down to the Southwest and build not only a big nasty fence along the border but land-mine the sucker as well.

I'm not one of those people.

I just want to color with crayons, for God's sake, not make some kind of political statement.

So. I have my Crayolas. The coloring book is a different story. And for that, I'll make a political statement.

OK, I'm gratedful to Grandma Gladys for my new crayons and my Cinderella coloring book and the chance to come over to play. But I have this thing against coloring books, and it's personal. Yes, small children love them, and they make a lot of money for Disney, and Sesame Street, or whoever else has a popular character to hawk, they're good if for some reason coloring inside the lines is important to you, or if one needs to learn hand-eye coordination. BUT THEY KILL CREATIVITY. AND I WISH TO GOD THAT PRINTING COMPANIES WOULD STOP MAKING THEM.

No, I'm not the Grinch. Fer cryin' out loud, Husband and I have more toys that some of the small fry in our neighborhood. And I own not one, but TWO boxes of 64-pack Crayolas with the built-in sharpener. And Play-Doh. And both Gumby and Pokey. So there.

But kids don't need to be shown what to color. They can color all by themselves. I've seen it. Give them a bunch of paper and some crayons and they will all be little Picassos (or Pollocks, or Rembrandts, depending on their temperament and ability).

And then we give them a coloring book and suck all the imagination right out of them.

I don't mean to put any parents' noses out of joint. Especially the parents of my beautiful, creative nieces, who are wonderful parents. (As is my other brother with his two handsome, creative sons.) I don't know what it's like to have a child who is, for example, in thrall with Barney and has to have the Barney coloring book or else you're going to hear screaming like you've never heard before. Who is quiet in the car or less cranky at family events because they have Princess Jasmine and a box of crayons for company.

And probably the occasional coloring book use is not going to scar a child for life. But as a steady diet I believe it's as soul-crushing as sitting in front of the TV too long or eating too much fast food or whatever the Health Police believe is making our children fat and lazy on any given day.

And I let my kindergarten teacher know that. I don't think she meant any malice when she gave us a project to color in the pretty clown dittoed from some coloring book. Maybe she just wanted a nice, quiet afternoon. Then I had to pipe up that I wanted to draw my OWN clown and didn't want to color some stupid clown from a coloring book.

This got me kicked out of class for the day.

Hence my political position.

But is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that the child whose creativity is consistently thwarted grows up to be an adult who votes the way their friends and parents do, talks in bumpersticker slogans, and basically becomes one of the herd who puts up with paying ten dollars for inane movies, who puts up with a government who tramples on our civil rights, and who sits by idly while networks air very, very bad television?

OK. Maybe you can't blame some innocent Cinderella comic book on the dumbing-down of civilization, but it sure isn't helping any. And don't get me started on the princess thing. That's a topic for another day.