Working 9-5

9 to 5

When I graduated from college I started the job search. There was no living in my parent’s basement. There was no backpacking through Europe. I knew had to work. With a double major in English and Sociology, I really wanted to become a famous novelist but had a backup plan of saving the world. The prospect of writing a novel was a thousand times more terrifying than saving the wold so I looked at nonprofit jobs and anything that seemed remotely brave and sacrificing.

There was no internet, so my strategy was to cut out little ads from the Boston Globe, arrange them on a sheet of yellow legal paper and stare, looking for a sign. I should have recognized the giant sneeze that sent the ads scattering to the floor as a sign. Wrong direction. Go with the writing.

But instead I started interviewing. In preparation I went home to Syracuse and my mom gave me her Dey Brothers charge card so I could buy something other than t-shirts and jeans. I came home with an Evan-Picone suit jacket and skirt and a London Fog raincoat. My mother almost went into shock, not just at the price tag, but at the fact that I had any style or taste. But that’s a whole mother-daughter story for another time.

My first interview was at an all boys Catholic School in the North End of Boston. I didn’t have a teaching certification and had never taught, but neither of those was a requirement for Catholic schools. There were two priests and a lay teacher who looked looked stern and priest-like. The interview lasted about 20 minutes. but felt like 2 hours. They were looking for someone to teach juniors and seniors English Literature, American Literature, Sociology, Psychology and Criminology. And they wanted this person to teach freshmen Western Civilization as well. There was one planning period a day except 2 days a week you would have to cover study hall. The average class size was 27 and the study hall was for 45 or so juniors and seniors. Boys. 45 junior and senior boys.

They asked me how I would teach abortion. They told me women weren’t paid as much as men. I was sweating profusely. It was August and that Evan-Picone suit was wool. At the end of the interview I shook everyone’s hand, walked out of the school to the parking lot and found my keys locked inside my car. I teared up, swore, and went back inside to face my inquisitors. They were in the same room, their heads bowed together, murmuring about me no doubt. With no AAA, no idea who to call in the middle of the day, I did the only thing I could do. I asked for a coat hanger.

They found one, and then followed me out to the parking lot to watch as I untwisted the metal, made a long straight rod with a hook at the end, and broke into my car. Eyebrows were raised, odd noises emitted from the back of their collective throats. I pulled out of that parking lot at a dangerously high speed, ready take off the suit, bra, the matching pumps, right in the car and drive naked through a Dairy Queen for a sundae.

I got the job.

And so began the wold of work for me. I’ve been at it ever since. Jumping from job to job, never quite saving the world, writing in fits and spurts on the side but never finishing that novel. Structure is good, money is good, but putting aside one’s dreams, well that takes its toll. There are, however, stories. Lots of them. And they percolate, inform, get me to write now and then, shape my outlook and days.

You are, after all, the stories you tell. I have so many from my work. More probably from childhood. A lifetime of stories. Don’t we all have a lifetime of stories?

 

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Infused

spa

End of the work day and off to the spa. Today the snack is peanut butter crackers, four in a pack. They bring me water in a Dixie Cup and Rachel Ray is on TV, but only for a few minutes because someone asks for Dr. Phil. This time the needle goes in after only two tries with minimal wiggling to find the vein. I think the bruise will be smaller, more yellow than purple.

I sit in the same chair, my chair, at the end of the row closest to the door. For more air? For the possibility of escape? Maybe just habit. I negotiate a book between one arm hooked up to the I. V. and the other attached to the blood pressure cuff that periodically puffs up like an inner tube, checking on my status. Then I use my superpower. I tune out the chatter of the nurses, the bleating of Dr. Phil, the drip of chemicals, the flush of a toilet, the snoring of the man next to me. I read. I read and read and read. Nothing else matters. I am in a place I’ve been going to since childhood, a place of dreams and good vs evil and second chances and laughter and tears. A foreign place I immediately recognize. I am home.

This is my RA treatment. It happens once a month and while I know the drill I’m still uncomfortable every time. I’m usually the youngest person in the room. I want to put my legs up in my chair, the hospital version of La-Z-Boy, but I’m too self-conscious. I don’t want to appear overfamiliar. Like going into a friend’s refrigerator without asking. I am so rule-bound, even here. God forbid I have poor manners.

Rheumatoid Arthritis isn’t the worst. Not as bad as cancer or a brain tumor. Not as bad as really bad MS. It’s treatable, it can be slowed down, it has a long shelf life. I know there are people who suffer terribly with RA. I know that day could come for me. But right now a monthly infusion at the spa, a shot in my stomach that I give myself once a week, these are manageable things and it only takes a little work to not feel sorry for myself.

Because I can read, and write, and read writers’ writing about writing. Like Colum McCann’s Letters to A Young Writer. Ho no, I am not Young, and in fact I’m bordering on Old, but I still count. I can be brave now and then. I can carry a notebook and care about language and think someday I’ll be something.

And surprisingly enough, I can still blog. I can just open up my laptop after getting lost in the dessert for 6 months (was it longer? shorter?). I can say stuff and hope it lands somewhere. I can love you guys. Because you read.

What are you reading these days?

 

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This Old House

Fixer Upper
Today we are having some work done on the house.

If you own a home, you know what a scary sentence this is. Strangers invade, banging, sawing, talking in code about things you know will cost more money. Things start, then stop and you’re not sure why. Music you would never listen to is turned up to cover the sarcasm and  pissing contests that ensue. And you have to ride it out. You are at their mercy. You hold your breath, pray to the gods of renovation that in the end it turns out alright. That your bank account is not completely empty and your house settles back to its old self after all the upheaval and violation.

Today I’m surrounded by all the crap in my coat closet so a construction guy can climb into my attic and put in a vent. It’s amazing how much there is in the coat closet besides coats. That’s the other thing that happens when you start these kind of projects. You uncover more. You find something else you’ve been ignoring that really needs attention. Like the hoarding problem you’ve been hiding in the closet. The stockpile of grocery bags you buy so you don’t use plastic but then forget to bring to the store, so you buy more and forget those. The binoculars you thought you would use to look at birds in your yard. The cans of Spray Starch without their tops next to an underutilized iron. And all the board games from the ghost of Christmas Past.

When you write, it’s like this. You are working on something. You bang and saw and go at it. But it just uncovers something else that’s weak or broken or needs attention. And you don’t want to go there. It’s overwhelming. Why can’t you just put the vent in? Why do you need to clean out the closet too? And then fix the leaky faucets and nail in the step into your TV room so no one breaks their neck and figure out why the light over the basement stairs is flickering on and off like Gus the firefly?

Because it’s never finished. Never, ever.

You just keep at it, until, well I don’t know exactly until when. Because I’ve never finished anything. Nothing’s ready to send out. Nothing’s done, or good enough, or safe. I just keep trying to fix the leaky faucet, or more accurately, stick a bucket underneath and leave it for awhile.

OK, enough of this metaphor. But seriously, what do you do when your writing is an endless fixer upper?

 

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It’s a Cold and It’s a Lonely Hallelujah

chipsForgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been six months since my last blog post.

Not that I have anything to write about.

I suppose I could rant about  Donald Trump but if I get started I won’t stop.

I could talk about this book I just finished that was the saddest story I have ever read. So well written you should run out and get it now. But so heart wrenchingly sad I can’t possibly recommend it. But the writing…I know, why did I even bring it up? Ok, A Little Life, but don’t blame me if you can’t get through it.

I could talk about eating clean. I want to eat clean. I bought a Prevention Magazine guide to eating clean in the check out line at the supermarket the other night, alongside a bag of sour cream & onion potato chips. I felt a little dirty buying the chips. I ate half the bag reading the magazine.

I could talk about the fact that The Good Wife is ending or that Elizabeth Keen is dead or that I really don’t like what’s happening to Callie & Arizona on Grey’s, but then you would realize that along with my dirty potato chip habit, I watch way too much television.

I could tell you about my daughter’s chorus concert this week. The auditorium looked like a bare threaded pair of suit pants on an old man. The solos lovely, pure, off-key here and there, heart-in-throat adolescent angst and glory. These sung by seniors – a farewell tribute. My daughter, only a sophomore, doesn’t have to face this yet. Doesn’t have to take the rose at the end of the concert and have something announced about her future in front of all of us expectant adults – the college they are going to next year where 30% will drop out, the majors they have chosen that 80% will wind up changing. Those 3 kids who were announced “still undecided” looked a little embarrassed but I clapped hardest for them.

Or maybe, since it is Mother’s Day, I could talk about what this day is like for us mothers who have lost their mothers. My mom died almost 5 years ago at the young age of 75, and I still have Mother’s Day cards in my bedside drawer that I bought for her. My mom would have loved my daughter’s concert, although she didn’t visit much. One of the things she said to me when I was taking care of her at the end (and she said this in a flat tone as she was taking some of the last steps she would ever walk) is that she loved me more than I would ever know.

But I knew. I knew all the dynamics that made it hard for her to show love and approval to me. I knew she didn’t understand me and my choices. I knew she was jealous of me in my youth, and later felt I could do better on so many fronts. I knew she chose other people over me – to visit, to listen to, to share her love. And I knew she knew I was angry at her and unforgiving.

We are all a mess of good intentions gone bad and repeated tiny heartbreaks balled up with hope. I miss my mother like my arms have been taken away, like I’m wandering the streets of the place I grew up and no one recognizes me or even speaks the same language. I can’t stand that she left so soon, before we could figure it out just a little bit more.

I told her that I loved her. I told her it was ok to go. But I wish I told her I forgave it all. I wish I said, I understand you. I understand.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there trying, hoping, loving. It is practically impossible to get it right. There will books written about you. My Name is Lucy Barton, for starters. It is impossibly sad and beautifully written (another one!) and about a mom and a daughter and I think you should read it. Elizabeth Strout is my hero.

So many times I come back to this blog and promise to write more and then wind up at my default of silence. So no promises today. Just a few words. A few book recommendations. And a shout out to my mom. XO

 

 

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Howlings

o-WICKED-WITCH-OF-THE-WEST-facebook

The witches are stirring the pot. Stirring, stirring.

Our screen door blew off, screaming and kicking, dangling by a chain.

The dog escaped like Houdini from a hidden hole in the backyard fence.

5 candy bars have disappeared from the trick-or-treaters basket.

We ran out of milk in the middle of making pancakes.

Friends are coming tonight and I swear a tornado hit the kitchen and dining room.

My 15-year-old wants a nose ring.

Stirring, stirring…

I feel like Dorothy, trapped inside the witch’s crystal ball. Life swirls around me. is it Kansas or Oz? Are there ghosts in the cupboards? Zombies on the living room couch?

We are the House of the Full-Size Bars. Swarms of children wearing neon glow necklaces and dressed like Olaf or Donald Trump will storm the front steps. Adolescents in black hoodies will push pillowcases at me and grunt. Pumpkin beer will flow down our street behind parents and crazy uncles let loose for the night. No one will notice the screen door has flown the coop. No one will recognize the hag at the door dressed in mom jeans.

The witches are stirring the pot and I can’t decide – drink from the cauldron or not? Roll the crystal ball off the table and watch it shatter? Run away with a warlock and get a tattoo? Clip the single blood red rose left clinging to its thorny branch and clamp it between my teeth? Go all day without a shower?

Loosen the hinges of your soul tonight, even just a little. Watch the corners of the room for creeping shadows and thorny dustballs. Blacken a tooth, wear a gypsy shawl, turn your underwear inside out, juggle pumpkins and bananas and a thorny rose. Ride on the back of your Swifter and scatter candy corn across the moon.

It’s Halloween. Do you want to howl with me?

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I Shall Wear the Bottoms of my Trousers Rolled

e74cd0b699ff04ed2d01dff3ca86736dAnother birthday here and gone. Essentially nothing has changed. The same wish list that’s scribbled in my high school journals persists:

1) Have better posture

2) Loose weight

3) Become a Broadway star

4) Figure out the meaning of life.

Is it weird that I think a few of these things are still possible?

I saw someone the other day who I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years. She claimed I hadn’t changed a bit. Should I feel good about this? They say as you get older you don’t care what people think about you but I find that just isn’t true. I still can’t go out of the house without mascara. I am getting more, not less socially awkward. And just the other day my daughter and I saw two old ladies wearing sequined baseball caps and ordering Tuna Melts at the local Newport Creamery. Adorable, yes, but if I start wearing sequins to Newport Creamery just put me in the nursing home.

On the other hand, I do feel less pressure to complete a sentence when I’m talking. People just nod and carry on. There is a certain fog that rolls in at my age, not always unpleasant.

But I do feel a bit untethered. My sense of home has unraveled. I have no bucket list to speak of. There is no plan for retirement and no driving goals.

Except reading. I can’t stop reading. (The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, anyone? Holy crap!)

And then there is the writing. Which is about so many things, like time and faith and luck. And at my age you realize more acutely than in earlier years, that these things do in fact, run out.

But I am pessimistically optimistic or optimistically pessimistic, depending on the day. And what this means for someone my age, is that you just keep at it. We are, after all, if not Broadway stars, shining stars.

So here’s to birthdays coming and going. Shine on.

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You’re Just My Type

images-5A few days ago my car broke down. It was outside a Starbucks near Brown University. I waited for a tow for an hour and a half. Between calls to the dealership, the tow guy, and the vet (Dog Number 3 had her lady parts removed), there was a lot of good old fashioned people watching.

Does anyone out there do this anymore? I think 95% of the folks who passed by were looking at or talking on their phones. Including the adorable young man wearing faded blue overall shorts, his legs sprouting sun-bleached poodle curls, his hair a white David Bowie cut. Same with the portly Lucius Malfoy look-alike in his black pants/shirt/suit jacket. And the minions of pony-tailed students wearing jogging bras and athletic shorts.

Then there was a woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, dressed to go out for the evening, little black dress, high heels, thick shoulder length tree-bark colored hair. She was pacing back and forth in front of Starbucks, maybe waiting for a Match.com date, a limo, Lucius Malfoy? And under her arm, where I thought she would be holding a stylish clutch, was a package of Oreo cookies.

The next day I was telling my 15-year-old daughter about this woman and she said, “That’s amazing. I want to be her when I grow up.”

And there it was. With that brief description a full-blown character had leapt forth, real enough to be my daughter’s hero.

Right now the writing is killing me. It’s partly because I have to make stuff happen, like, uh, plot. But more than that, I think it is because my main character is boring the crap out of me. And that’s because I don’t know her well enough. So the other day I started one of those exercise things everyone always says will help but I hate them because I think I should already know this stuff (which I don’t) and it makes me feel like I’m wasting time when I should be writing the actual novel (which I’m not). But I was desperate and so I started a list of things about this character:

X is someone who:

Uses humor to deal with complex feelings

Is a little beaten down by the way she thought life would be vs the way life really is

Too vague, I thought. So this:

X tried a lot of outdoor activities because she wants to be an outdoorsy person – loves to go into REI and look at all the cool clothes, gadgets, tents and hiking boots. But nothing sustains her interest long enough to get good at it and in truth she would rather stay at a nice hotel and take a bath

And then, of course, I realized why this character bores the crap out of me. She IS me.

When you are writing a novel (and it truly is a novel – there is a ghost in it for Pete’s sake and a lot of stuff that never happened to me and people who are completely fictional), but you base a character on a lot of what has happened to you, it is hard to make this person his/her own true self.

How do you get this person to break out of your shell?

Maybe more of these exercises? Maybe you get her to do things you would never do and see what happens? Maybe you make an on-line profile and see who she attracts? Maybe you put a package of Oreos under her arm?

This is really stalling out my writing. I probably need to do more people watching – hang out at Starbucks or Roller Derby or go to a lot of yard sales or interview people who think they are vampires. Any of that, of course, would be better than writing.

Character. I love it. I hate it. Time to get some.

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