Saturday, May 31, 2008

More stuff from the workshop

I've had a couple of more submissions, and they are more what I would expect, people just telling stories, straight plot, without details or juice. That will be relatively easy to talk about, except that one of them is written from the perspective of a baby, just able to walk. That's a really hard thing to do, and I'm not really sure how to tell that person to do it, except maybe to truck out the Faulkner to show the perspective of an alternative kind of consciousness, for lack of different words to describe it. Since memory has been linked to the onset of language, it's difficult I think to write pre-verbal memories, though I've tried to do it myself in poetry. I have one very clear pre-verbal memory, but to capture the essence of what it felt to visualize it, that is perhaps impossible.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

organized chaos

This summer I have a few projects. Besides preparing to teach a new class (writing 2, with the theme of the psychodynamics of slavery), I am trying to clean up my house, and possibly also will be looking for a place to move into so I can start over trying to live decently. Every day I choose one little task or maybe two and leave it at that. That way I do not feel the sense of panic in my stomach that the thought of having to clear out the mess brings me. I fool myself into calmly taking on a tiny part of the mess.
I am also reading short stories. For some reason, I have not ever done that. In fact, I have sort of avoided them, with a couple of exceptions--Kafka and Borges. I didn't even read Nabokov's short stories, although I have read everything else he has written. It is sitting there still on my shelf. So no wonder I have trouble knowing how to teach people to write them and to write them myself. I am even thinking that I may take on a few stories in Russian. I have books on my shelf I have not touched since my years of language study in grad school and summer institutes. I know that Tolstoi's and Dostoevski's Russian are lucid and wonderful, though of course I have to struggle to read them, and will have to struggle even more because it's been years since I've practiced and studied the language.
And of course I am teaching the workshop and writing the exercises along with the students. It is a very stimulating and freeing experience. I have read two of the stories students in the class have sent me. One is very good. This person has real ability. It should be interesting working with her.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Last night was the first class of the Creative Writing Workshop I am teaching this summer. It is 4 hours long, which is a bit daunting. It was an odd but interesting group. Predictably, the older women were the most willing and cooperative students. The older men were shopping for one thing or another that this class could not offer. One was an Indian gentleman who had no clue what a workshop was; he was looking for a class to help him improve his writing on the job. The idea of writing poems was simply ridiculous to him, so he dropped. The younger men weren't really interested in doing writing so much as in getting credit for not doing much, so they dropped too.
After reading Williams' autobiographical narrative, "The Use of Force," I gave them an hour to begin working on their own narrative about an experience involving at least two people in which they similarly learned something about themselves they weren't necessarily happy to find out. That's when the guys left. Unfortunately, I lost one really good woman who was thinking of adding too. Perhaps an hour is too long for such an exercise, but I was trying to fill that 4 hours. Once they begin turning in work for discussion, that will no doubt be simpler and I can decrease the amount of in-class writing they do.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fear and Loathing in a Nissan Sentra

I just got back from my first ride with my son on the freeway. He has been driving for about 5 months, but I have never gone with him on the freeway before. But today, on the way back from the Memorial Weekend Baseball tournament, held at Golden West College, I had no choice but to go with him as he drove back home to go to work after playing the tournament. It was an exciting game. I barely wondered what inning it was. His team won, and he contributed one run and a number of plays from 2nd base to the win. It seems that we will qualify to play in tomorrow's finals, albeit in 4th or 5th place. I will probably not get to go see the game because my parents are impatient for me to come see them, as I have not done that this weekend, having spent the weekend watching Jeremy play ball. My dad no longer has the desire to watch him play; it's too uncomfortable and the games are too long. My mom wouldn't know what was going on in the field, even if she were in her right mind. So I guess I'll miss the finals tomorrow.
Jeremy is kind of touchy, which is putting it lightly. His Tourette Syndrome and borderline rage make it difficult to make any kinds of comment at all about his driving or much of anything else.
So when he began to drive 85 mph, even though the freeway was pretty empty, I started to feel as though I was going to freak out. I very calmly (I thought) told him to slow down, whereupon he went ballistic, and I was sorry I opened my mouth, but he did slow down, blessedly. All this while, he was driving one-handed. Now I know that he was keeping a careful eye on the road, but one-handed 85 mph driving does not seem like the best idea, to put it mildly. And he says that he would think nothing of answering the cellphone at such a time; he does not have a hands-free phone because he won't use one. He's going to have to get ticketed a couple of times before he quits doing this. Let's hope it's a ticket and not an accident.

Friday, May 23, 2008

One of those days

Yesterday was a hard day for lots of us. As Lou says on her blog, the end of the semester is a shock for many students, who stand shocked before us when they are told they haven't fulfilled their obligations for the semester. Those students will have another whole semester of redoing the class to ponder this fact. Then there are those who have legitimate reasons for lateness or who believed they had fulfilled the requirements in good faith and somehow fell short; the instructor must then extend a hand, which I did, yesterday, and now I have a paper to grade and a grade change to make, with my new semester beginning on Tuesday evening.
But school wasn't the extent of the problems or even its major source yesterday. It rained, which is very odd for this time of year in this part of the country, especially rain like yesterday's, an honest to God thunder storm!!! And where are my umbrellas? Nowhere to be found, I'm afraid.
That means that the fire-scorched areas in the hills, where my friend Reb and her family live, are again flooded, and they have been evacuated. I am thinking about them now and hope that any rain we have today will be blessedly light.
Talking about rain and pouring, the saga of the Medicare Part D goes on! A month or so ago I decided to accept the option of mail order medication, which is considerably cheaper than buying a the pharmacy, but these things are never simple, so the Medicare Part D provider suddenly decided I was not on the level and demanded official papers proving I was my mother's POA. I'm sure I sent these years ago, but they were lost in the bureaucracy somewhere, so I sent them again, only to learn that no one had received them. True, I sent them to the fax number provided, and the machine said they had been transmitted successfully, but apparently they only entered the twilight zone because no one had seen them. Probably they are on the floor, while an attendant snoozes fitfully in a cubicle somewhere in Kentucky. So I have to send them again... and with any luck, my mother, who has run out of her medications, will receive some by Tuesday! Let's hope this is in time to save her a trip to the hospital.
My father, meanwhile, had an accident in his pants at the doctor's office, and I had to trail behind him picking up BMs from the floor. Poor guy. He was so mortified! I took him home afterwards, washed his pants and underwear, and gave him and my mother some lunch.
So much for my plans to go to yoga class. One does what she has to do!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

logistic problems

I am trying to prepare my first lesson for the Intro to Creative Writing Workshop I am teaching, which starts next week! I am very excited about doing it, and hope to write all the exercises along with the students, though they won't see what I write because I don't show my drafts to anyone, never mind beginning writing students! Every once in a while a miracle happens and a fully formed poem (or almost fully formed) springs from my brow like Athena on caffeine, but needless to say, that doesn't happen too often.
For this lesson, I am trying to scan the drawings from a children's picture book, Zoom, into my thumb drive so I can build an introduction to the class around it. I would have preferred a video of Zoom from the old Sesame Street show, but I can't find one online anywhere. I'll Google it again or check out YouTube and see if I missed one. My scanner doesn't work too well, and I know that I will end up wanting to throw the computer across the room after too long.
Zoom, for those of you who don't know it, is a wonderful conceptual picture book that starts with what looks like an abstract zig-zaggy red design that, in the next page, turns out to be the comb on a rooster's head. As the pictures go on, the "camera" of the artist's eye backs up and up and up, so that the rooster becomes part of a scene from a window two farm children are looking at, which becomes a toy village a girl is playing with, which becomes a picture on a magazine someone on a cruise ship is reading, which becomes an advertisement for the cruiseline on a passing bus... you get the idea. My assertion will be that writing is rather like this... I am starting out having them read a narrative by William Carlos Williams, "The Use of Force," about his doctoring experience tussling with a little girl with a deadly secret. I will have them write their own short narratives about an experience they had, and in the next week, they will look at an experience from the perspective of someone not themselves. The idea is to get them used to becoming the roving eye of the camera, like the perspective of the person who drew Zoom. It's not a bad metaphor for fiction--pretending to see from an impossible perspective, a perspective not one's own, and it will catch their fancies, I hope, if I can figure out how to do it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

note on my last post

I got an answer to the note I sent to my former friend, and let's just say it was not what I hoped for. I don't know what I hoped for, but whatever that was, this wasn't it. She told me some new and awful developments involving her own life, but further than that she said that she didn't want to talk about it anymore and said that she understood perfectly what I had gone through in my past, but still felt it wasn't appropriate to compare it to her experience, and she didn't want to hear about it either.
So that's that, I guess. But what makes any of us think we really know each other, no matter how long we have known each other? It makes me feel sad, but perhaps I don't have a right to. All of us are just passing through, and happen to bump into each other in the dark.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

a letter to a friend

A very good friend of mine whom I have known all my life recently stopped being friends with me because of a letter I wrote to her. That was almost a year ago, but she has not forgiven me.
It was about an experience I felt we shared.
This friend moved a few years ago from the city out to a rural area, one that was quite conservative and closed-minded. In her usual optimistic, sunny way, she tried to improve things, to bond people, to pour her considerable energy into improving the town. And predictably (and least for negative souls like myself), they rejected her efforts wholly.
So, seeing her harming herself by throwing herself constantly against the wall, when the people in her neighborhood taunted her and her family, tried to kill her dog, passed rumors in the town newspaper, I tried to give her my best advice, out of the depths of my own similar experiences,
but this was not accepted or understood.
Absolutely unimaginable cruelty. That's what the people of that town inflicted on her. People who had been her friends turned on her suddenly and viciously, yelling at her and her family as they sat in their homes, calling her daughter a whore, invading her backyard and even her basement, claiming to own portions of it.
This is something familiar to me because when I was a child in Philadelphia, very similar things happened to my family. Only I was not at first able to escape it because of my age. And it continued up until those people died or moved away and I finally myself left the place behind me, physically and psychologically.
The entire block, all composed of people very much like my family in background and economic status, decided to make us outcasts. I was 5 years old when all of them sat out on their front stoops. A trip to the library across the street was like running the gauntlet because all them jeered me and my mother, throwing stones and glass bottles full of bees and yelling epithets.
And they did this every time any of us put our faces out the door.
Soon we retreated to the back alley. My parents taught me to ignore, to pretend none of it was happening. They never, to my knowledge, called the police or set out to change this. They submitted to it like dumb beasts under the lash, and encouraged me to do the same.
At school, it continued as bullying. In high school, I spent an entire year eating lunch in the bathroom because otherwise, I was thrown down the stairs or into a trash can. Being small and unequipped with any but mental advantages, I was unable to fight back, and my parents had made it clear they did not want me to complain to the authorities, who in any case didn't care, and watched as blandly as those parents on my street as these things happened to me.
But I have miraculously been able to will these events not to mar my life forever. I have not forgotten them, but I have been able to turn them outwards. They have given me, as worse events gave Mandela and others, the ability to escape the prison of selfhood and identify with the most downtrodden, to feel with them and try to reach out to them. I wanted to give this same gift to my friend, but was not able.
Why else have I been given the ability to write, but to communicate what I have learned from my own experience? I hope other people will be as fortunate as I was to use their own pain to escape bitterness and to help others escape their pain.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Believe it or not

If you are like me, you get lots of emails warning you about the danger of this or that common household substance, and it is hard not to wonder whether you should immediately eliminate all plastic water bottles and such things, which in any case are only something we need because some marketer somewhere has convinced us we need them.
Yesterday I got an email about clumping cat litter, which is a popular commodity around my house. Even though Shadow doesn't poop in the litter box but rather on the floor, no matter how spotless the box is (and that is one thing I am very careful to clean frequently), she does urinate in the box, and Whistler does all his business in the two boxes we have in the house.
This email told of the deadly threat presented by this kind of clumping litter, which, according to the several people who wrote in about their cats' negative experiences with the stuff, can be swallowed and expand inside the intestine to cause dangerous obstructions. Even if cats don't get obstructions, some writers claim that this substance has carcinogens in it, and has caused cancer in some cats.
I think that I will try to change litter when I finish the clumping litter I have, but I have tried several kinds of litter with these cats, and this is the kind they seem to like best. I can't have them urinating outside the boxes and I don't want to see Whistler pick up Shadow's bad habit of pooping on the floor or carpet.
I called the vet and she said that she has seen no cats who have experienced problems with this stuff. Dogs, however, are a different story. They tend to eat this litter, and it is not good for them. Cats apparently have more sense, or don't like the flavor and so quit after a few pieces.
It's hard to know what to believe anymore.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cat therapy

I've been in touch with an animal behaviorist to break Whistler of his habit of sleeping all day and waking me up several times in the night to feed and pay attention to him.
I recognize that my cat is probably bored. He was always a very dependant animal, unlike Shadow, who will solicit play in an irresistable way, tapping me on the shoulder and mewing as I sit at the computer, or hanging upside down from the back of my chair as I sit grading papers at the table, or making goofy faces at me while I am trying to read, standing smack in the middle of a page. Whistler, on the other hand, just gets listless and bored. As my son puts it, he is a "mama's boy," something my son never was.
I thought about teaching him to walk on a halter and taking him out for a walk, recognizing that it would probably not work. First of all, cats don't think much of leashes. And when you do take them out, they tend to climb up a tree, leaving you holding the end of the leash. Plus, as the vet tells me, coyotes sometimes take plump beasts like Whistler right off the leash, an easy target.
He's too fat to run, even if I let the leash go, and coyotes are agressive these days.
So I tried to play with him again. You have to understand; I've got cat toys all over the house, having spent a fortune at various times for this. The cats have little interest in any of them. But if I make enough of an effort, I can usually get Whistler to play, after 15 minutes or so of watching them sit there, apparently unmoved. I usually give up and go away.
Shadow is easier; if one simply rolls up a little ball of paper, that's sufficient to start her up. Whistler is more difficult to get started, but once he is started, he'll play for a good long time.
It's working. He sleeps better, and is kinder to me, not waking me as often or as insistently.
I just need to keep it up. It's probably good for me too.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day when your kid is grown up

Today was Mother's Day, which means that I was technically being feted by my family, especially my son. He gave me a rose and a card and graced me with his presence at dim sum lunch today. That was great; he so seldom spends time with us over a table these days. But it was hard for him, almost painful, I think. He rolled his eyes a lot.
I have to remember what it was like to be a teenager. He will be 18 soon, but he's a kid. If anything, he thinks like a kid younger than he is, maybe 16, but able to drive, working, and graduating from high school.
He'll grow up in his own time. Meanwhile, he's taking on responsibility and dealing with it the best he can. I guess that's all any of us can do.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A solution to the MD dilemma and other (sad) stuff

I think we're gonna go eat dim sum, but in a restaurant that also has Japanese and Vietnamese food. According to OC Weekly, it does a good job at all of these things. It isn't British food; that's expensive and otherwise not very good around here (we've tried it), but it will get her the steak she wants and the dim sum I want!
I learned last night that my cousin, Ellie, who is actually a cousin by marriage, is dying. We long expected her death because she was born with a flaw in her heart, and although she is not that old (about 60) has had about 7 strokes and 3 heart attacks and was suffering from heart failure. She was bedridden for years, and her poor husband, who teaches economics full time at SUNY and part time at NYU, is ill himself and was struggling to look after her.
She has apparently been on hospice for months now, and all nutrition and liquids have been withdrawn from her. That must be terrible to watch. I don't think I could make myself do it.
I had a terrible time allowing my cat, Quincy, to die when he had feline leukemia, but I did learn from that experience. He accepted it; I had to as well. But I wasn't directly responsible for his death.
Imagine someone, a person you love, dying in that way! But is the alternative any better? That's the difficult question each person must answer for herself.
I will miss Ellie, although I had not seen her in years. She was a funny and sweet person who smoothed my cousin's rough edges and helped settle arguments. She will be much missed in a family that tends to brood and cloud up at the slightest hint of a problem.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Check out ""

I just had a short article, "'Pet Parents' in the Promised Land," published on "," Robin Hudachek's website about cats, nominally to advertise her cat sitting business, but also a work of love and enthusiasm.
It's a fun little bit of cat lore and lit. Go have a look, to distract yourself from the world's sadness and your own ennui.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mother's Day Dilemma, as Usual

Mother's Day is coming again, and since it might be my mom's last or at least the last she can appreciate in any way, I want to choose a place to go (to eat, most probably) that she will appreciate.
My mom is South African, which means she likes a good cuppa tea, which I think I've mentioned before, and she eats mostly British type things, though she has come to appreciate good Chinese food (that isn't pork, shrimp, or other un-Jew-friendly stuff), and she loves the beach. We also aren't loaded with cash.
We've taken her to Mozambique a couple of times, which was fun, though pricey, but we'd like to try someplace new. Anyone know of a place at or near the beach (maybe Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, or thereabouts, or Huntington, if we're looking north) where she can either get a lovely tea but the rest of us will find something decent to eat or Chinese, Vietnamese, or whatever that's interesting and edible, plus in a place that's worth being in for its own sake?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Yom Ha Shoah

This Thursday was Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. This year, rather than reading long and somber lists of names of people killed in the camps, we heard from survivors in the congregation about their personal experiences in the Shoah. That was really fascinating, hearing a whole different side of people I had known for years. I was particularly intrigued to hear the stories of elderly people who spoke again as the children they were, experiencing the incomprehensible during Cristallnacht and the Kindertransport.
One person described her incredulous, very assimilated father, a doctor, receiving a call from a gentile friend warning him to take his family and leave Dusseldorf right away because there was going to be trouble. Being a law-abiding citizen, one of the lucky ones, in his own mind, he called the police, who thanked him, then turned up at the front door to arrest him and his oldest sons. The rest of the family took refuge in a non-Jewish neighbor's house . When they came back, everything was broken... the windows, the dishes, the paintings on the walls slashed. And particularly poignant, the glass coffee table. The woman described her mother covering the table with a tablecloth and serving tea and cake to a visitor. As they sat drinking their tea, the children watched the cake and teapot slowly sink into the broken table, and tried hard not to laugh... or to cry.
All too often, Yom Ha Shoah turns into a sort of unhealthy fixation with death. This was about life, about survival, and the uncanny luck of finding oneself alive in terrible circumstances.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

what a relief it is

Yesterday I did as Lou suggested and asked after the health of the freshman kid on Jeremy's baseball team who broke his leg. I felt as light as a helium balloon (a difficult commodity to find these days, by the way!). It was so simple. How do people live with hatred and anger? The little bit of it I felt was slowly choking me.