Friday, December 31, 2010

once more to the attic

For the past couple of years, I've been writing what I call the Facebook Poems. I ask, as a status update, for my friends to submit words, and each supplies one until I cut the thread. I like to keep it rule-less, but I have to remind people to keep the words simple. The goal is not merely for me to write a poem; it's for people to like poetry; somehow, if they have invested a word in it, they are more interested in watching it come to life. To some extent, I think they are surprised by how beautiful a poem can be—intelligible, too, and enjoyable.

Still, I get oddball words—words even I have to look up, words that sound icky, like my least favorite of all words, refrigerator. It troubles me to use "forthwith" in a poem because no one says forthwith in daily conversation. Banana is hard, too, especially for a serious poem. Bananas are insanely funny.

I got this set of words a few weeks ago, and I've been stifled. But I was determined to end this year with a new poem. And it brings me to my goal for the new year. I am hoping to write the rest of my Facebook Poems and send the complete book off to a publisher or an agent or something. I'm tired of my poems languishing while my blog flourishes.

Of course, my goal for last year was to get into a recording studio with a few of our best songs, and that never happened. So I'ma make it happen, hear me? This year.

Best wishes to you out there in space and time. I hope to see you again—always better in real space and real time, but I'll take what I can get. Without further ado, the words and then the poem.

humble (kim g), loquacious (tamelyn f), gold (beth mvb), lost (julie h), wicker (jane t), caress (sarah b), strength (gail d), fervent (lynne f), quixotic (sandra r), forthwith (jason d), magenta (randy s), rime (sarah m), phoenix (julie f), warmth (beth s), parchment (michele d), scumble (craig h), lactation (jamie c), banana (mindi s), banal (peggy b), serenade (patrick p)

once more to the attic
for Bruce Ansley and Cleopatra

in the golden space between house and tree
—now magenta, now indigo—
in that space of fiery fervent sky,
I swim, lost in the bleeding striations of sunset.
In the attic, with its wicker chairs, old floors, and new heat
that squeak and hiss and settle, loquacious
as an eager child, I test my strength:
if I climb, I live, though it sounds banal.

in the rimed space between house and tree,
we bury the dog in a caress of old blankets,
pacified momentarily by the gesture of warmth,
like an infant suckling water for lactose,
a serenade of rush-hour crows poking holes
in the blurry scumble of greys above us.
we are raw as parchment’s deckle edge,
small humble mourners trembling.

in the quixotic space between house and tree
the scent of banana bread wafts outside, licks the bleak air
and, forthwith, shoots embers to the heavens.
like a phoenix, and once more to the attic I climb, I live.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

rest her soul

For a little while yesterday, her body was shaped like a crescent in her bed beside the desk.  I would stop my work and look at her and hold completely still and, unblinking, watch for movement.  Marty was standing in the doorway, and we confessed to each other that we both could see her body rise and fall in a regular rhythm, the black coat playing tricks as the radiator heat and leaky windows blew her hairs gently.  Cleo’s eyes were open—a result of the anesthesia—but they were dark enough to seem closed.

Where did she go, Marty wanted to know.  Her body got cold almost right away, all that leftover heat from circulating blood and physical energy just dissipating in the air like vapor.  We’d all like to think some clump of soul goes first, intact and at some perfect age of wisdom and agility.  If Mary Roach couldn’t prove it in Spook, I’m not inclined to believe in that perfect soul leaving the body’s building at thirty-four seconds past death.  I think it’s the job of your memories to reconstruct the souls of the departed.  They visit you sometimes via the corner of your eye, when the light hits just right, and a shadow flits, or when a heavy truck goes by and shakes your house and your bed, and you sense an impression on the mattress; the apparition, the disappearance—there’s your ghost, their soul.

I’m moving slowly for a few days.  I’m missing the sound of Cleo’s labored breathing, the struggle of her toenails against the wood floor.  I can pull my kitchen chairs out at will.  Chance is missing her, too.  We put his bowl where hers used to be, and he looked at us as if to ask for permission, and he ate cautiously.

In the early afternoon, against yesterday’s bitter cold, Marty finished digging and wrapped her in my old electric blanket.  He covered her with garden dirt and tears, and then it was done before I even knew.  Marty came inside, and I went out to stand with her and thank her. 

More than sadness and grief, I feel relief.  We can live with pain or indignity or loss of senses or limited mobility, but should we have to live with all of them, even when our ability to make that choice—especially when the ability to make the choice—is gone?  For all this talk of “quality of life,” why is it still the quantity of life that we attempt to preserve in the face of all of these ills? 

For some, it’s a religious belief.  It would seem that a major world religion was borne of the suffering of one man.  “It’s not the Christian way,” someone at the Catholic school said of euthanasia. Then she leaned in and whispered, “I don’t care; I wouldn’t want to live like that.”  Sometimes man learns the wrong lessons from history.  For me, the sin is in the suffering, the godliness in the compassion.

Monday, December 13, 2010

to sleep, perchance to dream

I haven’t slept in six months. If there wasn’t a dog beside my bed, snoring through thickened airways or panting heavily with pain or wandering the hallway, clunking the water bowl with her collar, pacing, peeing on the hallway rug, then there was a dog at the bottom of the steps, scratching at the barrier to come up, panting so heavily I could hear her through a closed door, above the din of the 1:00 a.m. TV. I’d get in bed and watch some cop show or The Good Wife, and I’d hear clunking and have to run downstairs, where I’d find Cleo stuck under a table or in a corner, trapped, frustrated. I could feel her panic and embarrassment.

My hearing and smell are already hypersensitive (something that happened when I was pregnant and never left me), but from the moment I got into bed each night, my whole body would tense up with anticipation. I knew she’d want to come up or need to go out or something just as soon as I’d start to drift off. Getting in bed has not been relaxing for a long, long time.  And despite the frustration I've been known to express  and the tears I've shed, I never once resented my dog. 

I lie here now, some lame singing show (why are the women in these shows too lazy to think of words for things [“you owned it, you killed, you rocked it]?) on the tube, just an hour after saying our goodbyes to Cleo. Her limp body is lying in her bed in the dining room, and she looks more comfortable than I’ve seen her in two years. Yet my body is still tense, my ears still pricked, waiting for the panting and the moving furniture.

At eleven every night, when the news started, I would go down and lie with her, whisper loving things to her that she couldn’t hear but I’m sure felt, make sure she was comfortable, check that the basement door was closed and the barrier was up. I won’t have to do that anymore. I won’t get to do that anymore.

I poured a shot of brandy while Marty threw back a last sip of beer. “I’m going up to bed,” he said. Already? “And you should go to bed, too. You need to sleep.” I do need to sleep, I said. I haven’t slept in six months.

But first, one last goodnight.

RIP, Cleopatra Queen-of-Denial Miller.  You were a very good dog.

- - - - - - - - - -

Thank you, everyone, for keeping my family in your thoughts.  We appreciate it more than you can know.

the queen of denial, part two

In the summer, we thought it might be time. Cleo was sleeping 23 hours a day, snoring loudly because of a thickening in her throat. She was suffering from arthritis, maybe a disc or other neurological issue. She was deaf, sometimes disoriented, incontinent with increasing frequency. It was difficult to wake her sometimes, and she was having trouble keeping her footing on the slippery tile floor. Then she couldn’t get up the steps by herself. Then she started falling down the stairs. We got a barrier and kept her on the first floor at night, but she’d stand at the bottom step and scratch on the makeshift gate for an hour. We'd sometimes give in, depending on the strength of Marty’s back. But she grew more restless at night and wandered the hallway, panting and knocking over things. She seemed to suffer from dementia and would get herself stuck under chairs or in corners, unable to back up—she’d just stand in the corner and pant.

My living room is now full of barriers—big foam core walls—to danger. I feared she’d burn herself on a floor lamp or start a fire with electrical cords. She got her head stuck between the fridge and the wall, where we stored some folding chairs; they tipped a little and seemed to pin her head—gently, but she didn't know the difference.

Still, she seemed to enjoy going to the park and would often perk up to see Chance and Marty getting ready. She was always hungry, too, and didn't that mean she still wanted to live? So that made it hard for us to agree on the time. Perhaps my family felt that my fear of a second back surgery (the first a result of having to lift Cleopatra each day to put her in the truck for a walk at the park) made me more eager to be rid of this physical burden—pulling her out of corners and lifting her onto her feet. And who could blame them for their love?

From the moment this five-month-old puppy wandered into our back yard in April of 1996, Cleopatra Queen-of-Denial Miller has been a loyal and delightful companion. Where Beowulf King-of-the-Geats Miller was a favorite among certain menfolk in our lives, Cleo was one of the most beloved dogs at the park. This is no hyperbole. Our dogsitter never charged us to watch her. My sister, who is highly allergic, would often bury her face in Cleo’s fur. My brother-in-law would have taken Cleo for his own, despite his wife's allergies. In fact, we got a lot of similar offers. People loved our dogs so much that when Cleo had Beowulf’s puppies, our vet took one. A neighbor took two. We kept Buddha.

Cleo’s always told us what she wanted or needed. She’d scratch at the back door to go out or come in; she’d fetch sticks and drop them at our feet or put balls in our lap. She didn’t take no for an answer, either, and would bark at us or paw us until we played. She spoke in a sweet little trill, slept on her back with all four paws in the air, licked our faces, played a mean game of tug-o-war (often snatching sticks from other dogs). She never bit us, not even by accident. She was only really sick once—with Lyme disease. And she took care of us, waiting for whomever was trailing behind.

In the last few weeks, it’s been clear to me in her pleading eyes. I’ve been waiting for my husband’s realization to catch up with my own. We’ve done this before—lost three dogs and two cats during our twenty-eight-year relationship, never mind those pets that came and went before we met. So it was never a question of whether it was the right thing to do.

When our daughter, Serena, was born, Beowulf was dying from kidney disease. We were waiting for the sign that he was done, and it came on a cold February morning. Marty took Wulf to the picnic table outside and covered him, spoke to him, kept him warm with hugs while we waited for the vet to come to the house. The shot that usually goes to work in a few short seconds took more than two minutes to work. Wulf let out a howl that is forever etched in our memories. I let it get to me sometimes, let myself believe that Wulf was trying to stop us instead of thanking us for his wonderful life and saying goodbye. His body had completely shut down; he couldn’t even metabolize the euthanasia agent. No question it was the right thing.

I had a feeling this final image was clouding my husband’s judgment, just as it haunted me. But Cleo’s decline over the last few days has been swift. She can no longer stand on her own and is often found trying to scramble away from her puddle of pee. When we stand her up and put her in the yard, she wanders around in crooked, slanted circles, stumbling. At least once every day, I am alone and having to wrap Cleo’s pee soaked body in my arms to move her. And she has finally lost her appetite. On Saturday, she refused her bone, and I called the vet.

It took that, I think—the indignity of lying in one’s own urine and excrement coupled with lack of a desire for food—to make her condition urgent. I have been crying, with small periods of clear speech (usually to yell at someone), since Saturday. Last night at midnight, I heard some furniture moving in the kitchen and rescued Cleo from what I hope and wish is her last puddle. I slept fitfully.

This morning, before he left for work, Marty stood in the kitchen and cried. If you think something is already a big pile sad, set a crying man on top. Serena left her homework in the dining room, so I took the opportunity at school to inform the staff that my people are fragile today. As if they couldn’t already tell.

The vet will come tonight, and we will bury Cleo in the morning. This is as right as our hearts are broken. Our dogs have always been beloved members of our family. They celebrate our joys and comfort us in times of grief. When they go, pieces of us go with them.

Their people will be fragile for a little while.

Monday, December 6, 2010

harford road

If you live in the area—or in Baltimore (city or county)—you might find something of interest on my new blog about local businesses on Harford Road. It's all about doing all you can do in your own neighborhood. You keep your house from being devalued. You reduce your dependence on oil. You keep your neighbors from losing their businesses and their homes. You show larger businesses and Internet stores that you value human contact and personal service.

Harford Road

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Things. Objects. Junk. Stuff. I have a lot of it, and sometimes I feel as though it has me.

In the rooms where I write, I am haunted by great writers; the floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelves packed with books in various stages of use by authors who question my worth behind my fancy Herman Miller desk chair. A three-year-old copy of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems still makes a cracking noise when you open it, while Mila 18’s title on the spine is indiscernible. Hundreds more books live in the bedrooms—and even the bathrooms—upstairs, while thousands breathe life into the attic, many snoring from boxes under the eaves, still packed from our move here 18 years ago.

Atop the bookcases in my dining room are no fewer than seven glamorous cake plates, as if I’ve ever made more than two cakes at one time. From where I sit, I see three acoustic guitars, a DSLR camera, some high-tech speakers, and lots of art. Never mind the tchotchkes.

Last year at Christmas, we decided that we have everything we could possibly need, including a brand new iMac, our family gift. We didn’t even get a tree for probably the second time since we moved here. It’s not that we were all bah-humbuggy. We just thought: enough’s enough. Christmas (and Hanukkah, though it’s a little quieter) seemed absurd.

I thought it would change this year: some cold days would settle in to let us know that winter was arriving, and I’d get the bug to hang some balls on something, maybe a tree, and light a fire in the rarely used fireplace. But the holidays still seem absurd to me.

This season, I’m feeling a little bit of revulsion. I get anxious when I hear the phrase “door busters.” I am queasy over extended shopping hours. Indeed, the thought of some stores opening their doors at, gasp, three a.m. on Black Friday gave me a migraine. I’m angered by the people being trampled on their way to get a deal on a Wii. I am super pissed off at the TV husbands (obviously from a well-off planet) who give their wives a new Lexus. And I am creeped out by Stinky the Garbage Truck.

I tried to stimulate my holiday appetite. I hosted Thanksgiving and made homemade eggnog and eggnog cheesecake and carrot cake. I had my own turkey for the first time in a decade (we’re still eating it a week later as salad and stew and sandwiches). I had friends stop over the next day to help make a dent in the sweets and the troughs of stuffing and mac and cheese my sister left here. But I am missing the spirit that makes me want to shop. And I can’t think of anything I want. The kind of stuff I need—new tires, new windows, new kitchen cabinets—are not gift material.

My kind of Christmas comes as a card in the mail with a personal message to me, like “I love you, Facebook Queen” or “Can’t wait to drink a Dead Guy Ale with you on Good Friday and a Resurrection with you on Easter Sunday” or “I sure hope you get a job in the new year, because your FB status updates kinda freak me out.” I mean, sure, your family/kids/dogs/reptiles/even cats are cute in the photo on your card, and I guess the post office really needs that forty-four cents, but while you’re at it, tell me something good or something funny or something happy about yourself. I already know your name.

My kind of Christmas stars the little kids who still believe in Santa, while I drink a cocktail in Kim’s massage chair next to her beautiful tree and sing along with Chuck Prophet. My kind of Christmas is heading down to the basement with my own family band to play real live Guitar Hero.

Did I just outgrow the holiday? Or am I simply responding to my inability to finance it? How have your feelings toward Christmas changed, if at all?

- - - - -

If you're not feeling Scrooge-y, someone you know would probably love a calendar.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

chain reaction: shop locally

Before you go shopping for that special gift for someone you love or like or are obligated to lavish with pretend affection, ask yourself, first, whether it will be truly special and, second, where your money might do you the most good. You’ll no doubt give some to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and you may have a significant portion of your purchases delivered to your door in boxes marked Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Target and Walmart will also catch you coming and going more times than you’d like to admit.

But the chains don’t need you like you need you.

If you can shop in your neighborhood—whether it’s for groceries or liquor or flowers—do it. If there’s a jewelry shop or a camera store or tiny burger joint near your house, buy something there. Because here’s what happens when you stay in your neck of the woods: your house retains its value.

It works like this: open, busy shops attract people, and people deter crime. Buildings are less likely to become vandalized and are more likely to become fixed immediately if they do. Bustling commercial areas in small neighborhoods make those neighborhoods appealing to potential home buyers, especially those with families. Your house—just up the street from a coffee shop, book store, hip happening hairdresser, hardware store, restaurant, pub, and fabulous boutique—retains its value—not only monetarily but personally. Your quality of life is vastly improved by community. (And remember Snowmageddon? It's a lot less dismal when you can walk to a place that's open because the owners walked there, too.)

I’ve heard before from people—even those with a good deal of disposable income—that they don’t get as great a “value” from shopping locally; that is, the books cost a little more. But when I buy a book at the Red Canoe, I visit with my neighbors and friends, chat with the owners, taste a sample of the newest muffin, and get a cup of coffee that’s roasted so locally I can smell it from my house. I learn the latest neighborhood news (and scuttlebutt, which is a little more fun). I am treated like a person, and that makes me feel good. I give my money to a friendly college student with good taste in music and a knack for making a killer sandwich. That, my friends, is value, and it radiates for blocks. It’s what the credit card company means by “priceless.”

If you’re not lucky enough to have a strip of independent stores in your neighborhood, come to mine. All up and down Harford Road you can find things that are truly special, one-of-a-kind items that no one else owns.

Studio C Jewelry & Gifts
4337 B Harford Road
10-5 T-Sat., 10-3 Sun
like them on Facebook

Constance Scott makes gorgeous beaded and tin jewelry and accessories, and she carries some of the coolest stuff around: letter hooks; pearl pens; bottle stoppers with golf balls and antique door knobs; funky locally-created clothing (made by converting two items into a single unique top or skirt!); magnets; hats; soaps; a whole line of gorgeous serving items from Swirl; and so much more. How can you resist a $4 package of the strongest magnets in the world or fancy bookmarks that fit in your daughter's stocking? You can’t leave without finding something special for someone special.

The Red Canoe
4337 Harford Road
7-5 T-Sat., 9-3 Sun.

Betty White may have put the fun back into talking about muffins, but Peter Selhorst put the fun back into eating them. They are the best muffins anywhere. If you want a sweet muffin, pick the cranberry chocolate chip or everyone’s favorite coffee cake muffin. Maybe you want a hot, crusty muffin, with spinach and cheese, gently heated and slathered with butter. (Dare I say "moist"?)

But Red Canoe is more than the sum of some of its muffins. It’s coffee and soups and sandwiches (try the Zacker—a grilled force of panini to be reckoned with). And, of course, it's books—for kids and grownups, with a huge selection of local authors' books. (Rumor has it that the Red Canoe carries a certain someone’s calendars, too.) Nicole and Peter support authors and artists as book-signing-party hosts, sellers, and wall-art displayers.

Koco’s Pub
4301 Harford Road

For the universe’s best crab cakes, with all jumbo lump and rarely a speck of filler, it’s Koco’s. Joanna, the owner, once told me she used a loaf of bread per twenty pounds of crab. If you find a piece of it, save it; it’s a little like finding a pearl in an oyster. Koco’s is on my speed dial.

The Chop Shop
4329 Harford Road

You need cool hair? Baby, she’s got cool hair. Visit Our Coiffed Lady of the Locks, Lisa Hawks, for hip happenin’ hairdos and trusty tresses that will make you the belle of any holiday ball. And you get some spicy shop talk, too.

Beth’s DIY
4321 Harford Road

Hey, just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean you don’t need a key made or a window rescreened. Beth knows what she’s doing, and she can show you, too.

The Chameleon Café
4341 Harford Road
5-9 T-Thurs, 5-10 Fri.-Sat.

Steak and lamb and scallops and vegetarian dishes and charcuterie—nothing in this restaurant is short of delightful. The space is sweet, and the food is as local and in season as it can possibly be. Brenda and Jeff Smith have created a heavenly foodie haven that’s been applauded by all the local magazines and newspapers. There’s even a prix fixe menu for those of us whose income is broken!

Lou’s Liquors
4516 Harford Road

Lou’s has a good selection of craft beers (and the usual crap beers, for those who like that sort of thing), as well as big jugs of Manischewitz. It’s also great for Lotto, cigarettes, and shorties.

Up the Road

Further north up Harford Road, you can find other hunks of awesomesauce:
· Zeke's Coffee (4607 Harford Road) has those fabulous, roasted-right-here (in the alley between the Chameleon and Safeway) beans and lots of coffee-related merch;
· Lakein's Jewelers (5400 Harford Road) for watch repairs and sterling chains and an ear piercing (really? you'd let a teenager from Claire's pierce your kid's ears?);
· Clementine (5402 Harford Road) for the yummy sandwiches and meals and fancy cocktails (best: chicken salad with havarti and lemon jam);
· Hamilton Vacuum (5421 Harford Road—buy it here once or repair the ones you didn't buy here each year;
· Hamilton Arts Collective (5440 Harford Road), because art is essential, not optional;
· Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbecue (5713 Harford Road) for your big bad appetite for barbecue;
· Shockers Smoke Shop (7110 Harford Road), for all your bong needs;
· Fenwick Bakery (7219 Harford Road) for donuts, cake, and pie (my husband buys a dozen cinnamon bismarcks here every week!);
· a strip of antique shops;
· Mueller’s Delicatessen (7207 Harford Road), for German goodies;
· Dead Freddies (7209 Harford Road) to watch the game while eating their shrimp salad on pretzel bread—best I've ever had;
· Home Discount Tile Center (7350 Harford Road) (a little like a car dealership, but more colorful).

Get your Christmas tree at the fabulous Walther Gardens, 4715 Walther Avenue (and, in the summer, Baltimore's Best Snowball, with ice cream on the bottom, thick chocolate syrup in the middle, and marshmallow on top; shop in the greenhouse, too, for herbs, annuals, and veggie plants). Those people are so nice, and their dog is good.

Move over to Old Harford Road, and find cool stick candies, wreaths, and greens at Poor Boys. Then get your Christmas facial and brow pluck from the beautiful and divine Gina at Giuseppe's (also in my speed dial—2616 Taylor, 410-665-4490). Finally, because you're gonna need it after all that shopping, ask for some Resurrection at the Liquor Pump (8535 Old Harford Road, 410-668-1820), and tell owner Harry Mehta that Leslie the Beer Goddess sent you. It's one of the nicest liquor stores ever, with a huge variety of fancy craft beer. The place holds tastings, too, so look for them on Facebook.

You don't have to be rich to shop locally, but if you shop locally, you will be rich. It's in the cards. If you don't trust me, go have them read at this place at the corner of Overland and Harford, between your rockin' crab cake and your bitchin' hairdo.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


photo by Steven Parke

My daughter became a bat mitzvah a little over a week ago, and I can't find the words to describe how I feel about it: about our weekly meetings with the rabbi, about our growth individually and as a family, about our incredible daughter (who tie-dyed her own tallit and braided its fringes and who still managed to pull straight As despite adding Hebrew lessons and rabbi visits to her busy music schedule and her creature maintenance), and about the party my mother threw to celebrate this simcha with mishpucha.

I'm not sure why all my revelations emerge as sentimentality rather than wisdom, as cliché rather than poetry. I seem to be mourning. Our Wednesdays with the rabbi were some of the most sacred and treasured hours I've had in years, and putting together 120 hand-made programs kept me focused on something other than my ailments and my dying dog and my lack of employment. When it's all over, I find my bullies have been quietly building up arms and ammo against me. I am perched between kvelling and yelling, and my reflexes are sharp, despite my physical decrepitude.

I have nothing but this poem I stumbled through, verklempt, the Sunday my daughter became responsible for her own goodness, her godliness.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

rock mitzvah
(for Serena, with a nod to Frank O'Hara)

it was a quick trade: umbilical for patch cord
my baby for bay-beh bay-beh bay-beh.
thirteen meticulous whirls past the sun
and she knows her way around a fret pattern
even before she’s fingering the tallit’s fringe.
the years are but a filmy dream that wakes up amid
ancient tongue (we have nothing if not endurance)
tremulous melody, pomp, and splendor
when all I’ve done to date is sigh. bark. write.
she must have flown here on the Puca’s back
reckless brown tresses whipping in wind
alighting at the bimah like a new angel.

I don’t see the crumbs of morning toast
on nervous lips she bit to crimson
don’t hear a skip in her smooth recitations.
so do I mourn this loss of little girl
or squash the selfish pangs and celebrate—
with a very real laughter she’d be proud of—
the way she wears her prayer shawl like wings?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

you need cool calendars; baby, I got cool calendars

My calendars looked so beautiful last year that I'm printing two new calendars for 2011--photos from the Hipsta and photos with a real camera! Click on the image below to enlarge it a tad.



If you're interested, they're $15 each, plus $2 shipping in the US. (Please add $5 for overseas.) They're payable by PayPal (, and I'll send them out as soon as they arrive, which is about a week. Don't forget your mailing address, and please specify which calendar you'd like.

And don't worry: I'll remind you again when it's closer to time to buy a calendar.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Bur first, an interview with the Ripstick Queen, two and a half years ago.

Note: the helmet and wrist guards, the mother running beside the daughter to check for cars.

It was common knowledge that you didn’t have breakfast at the Morning Edition near Patterson Park unless you had three hours to spend. It’s not that it was too crowded—it was, but it was a narrow first floor of a rowhouse and held fifty people or so in church pews and wobbly, cast-out chairs. But it was quirky, and the food was delicious, and sometimes you were willing to wait, even though service was so bad it was obscene: a server would bring you a cup of coffee, set it down at your table, and look at you surprised when you asked for cream and sugar. Then she'd walk back for the cream, set it down at your table, then look at you surprised when you asked again for sugar, then walk back for the sugar, then set it down at your table and look at you surprised when you asked for a spoon to stir it all, then walk back for the spoon and only sometimes return.

Now imagine that you’re not at the Morning Edition for some ridiculously decadent French Toast but at the ER for x-rays and stitches after a terrible accident. You’d expect a little more from nurse. You get nice. You don't get efficient. There has to be a better way.

I'll back up. I had just turned dinner on, poured a Resurrection into a fancy glass, and sat down with my guitar to learn Radiohead's "No Surprises," when Marty came back too early from the park. Serena had fallen from her ripstick. Yes, a ripstick is a horrible piece of shit wheeled toy that I like to call “a skateboard—only dangerouser,” and she went speeding down a hill, sans helmet, sans wrist guards (not that either would have helped, as only luck spared her from a broken wrist and a brain injury). She was going too fast and dismounted, her left arm—her fret-playing arm—breaking, literally, her fall, and then her face stopped it the rest of the way. When we arrived at a local hospital's ER at 5:45, the waiting room was full. I’d forgotten what it was like here—hundreds of patients using the hospital’s emergency facility as a primary care physician—mostly because this hospital saved my life when I was in anaphylaxis after taking a dose of penicillin, and because of the hand clinic. If something was wrong with her hand, she needed to be at this place.

Serena’s face is bloody, her nose bruised, her jaw and arm too sore to move. I sign in, noting on the form next to “reason for visit” that she suffered a terrible fall in an accident. She was triaged quickly because the pair of young nurses was caught up, and she was given an ice pack for her face and told that she’d get a room as soon as one was available. More than an hour later, at 7:15, I started listening more carefully; everyone was told the same thing. So much for keeping hope and patients’ spirits alive.

The woman at registrar had told us to sit at her desk; she’d taken pity on Serena and was making phone calls trying to get her Tylenol and a room. She tells us we are going to “flex care,” as if that were some special kind of white-table-cloth restaurant that takes a little longer but has much better food. But we are still at her desk at 7:30. Finally, she gets up and cleans three rooms herself—the first (and only) sign of real initiative at the hospital—and takes us back to the Flex Care waiting room, where we wait after another fifteen minutes until the nurse comes.

Serena is given a preliminary glance—asked what hurts—and sent to x-ray. We wait there for ten minutes or so, and then Serena’s arm is x-rayed, and we are delivered back to the tiny cubbyhole to wait another half hour or so for the pediatrician. He is a cheerful Dutch guy who is pleased to tell us he studied under Serena’s pediatrician twenty years ago. The tools in our cubby don’t work, so he stretches them from the room next door, where a girl who’d had strep for more than a week and has been waiting for a doctor just a little longer than we were is being seen. That girl has had asthma since birth, and the doctor is incredulous that the mother has no asthma medicine at all, not even an emergency inhaler. The teen is told that her throat looks like strep, but test results would take two days, so she’s getting a shot of antibiotics. Two days? The ER doesn’t have a 20-minute strep test like every pediatrician’s office and Patient First on the planet? Really?

Our doctor says that Serena’s x-rays indicate a fracture, but he is waiting for confirmation from an orthopedist. He tells us a nurse will come and clean Serena’s wounds, and goes to sit at his desk and eat. He sits there for a good thirty minutes, while the nurse, who sees me lurking in the hallway and apologizes each time, saying, “I’m coming,” finally does come with an armload of stuff to clean up the blood that’s dripping from her chin and head.

I had to remind myself that the nurse was not the waitress. Yet she came to us with the coffee but not the cream, sugar, or spoon. She came with her hands full of things she needed, then left in search of things she forgot, gone a good ten minutes between, apologizing along the way. She wondered whether the triple antibiotic ointment she brought contained penicillin, despite the fact that it said “active ingredient: bacitracin” on the packet, and left for another ten minutes to find out. She put on the ointment, and we reminded her that she’d not cleaned Serena’s scraped knees, so she went back for the peroxide and water. And then she left to get more ointment. I don't blame her; she was the only nurse! It's the hospital's fault.

Where’s my fucking French Toast?

Last week, at Alonso’s, a popular restaurant and bar where I’ve been a customer nearly once a week for two years and have been treated kindly by most of the wait staff, we sat, on a busy Friday night, at a sticky, filthy spot at the bar for twenty minutes, unable to get the bartender’s attention—after taking twenty minutes to get served a beer—so I went behind the bar, grabbed a wet rag, bused the dirty dishes, and wiped the bar. It took seconds. The bartender hollered at me. Why? Because customers are not allowed behind the bar.

So how could this whole scenario been improved? I could've cleaned her myself. Marty’d already cleaned her before we arrived. This was three hours of bleeding. What about one of those triage nurses? Couldn’t they have cleaned her wounds after they took her blood pressure, in the room where they had all the equipment to do it, in a room that wasn’t being used by anyone but us because they were all caught up? What about the pediatrician in ER? Couldn’t he have done it quickly, before sitting down to dinner and waiting for the next underage patient, who didn’t show up until 9:30 p.m.?

There’s a bleeding, broken kid in the ER, and it’s just like a bad restaurant. Where’s my fucking coffee?

At 9:00, three hours and fifteen minutes after we had arrived, we are still waiting for a phone call or a visit from the orthopedist, and Serena is finally glowing with sticky ointment. I am blotting the blood drips from her chin with a tissue brought to us by the guy cleaning the rooms. At 9:30, we are sent for more x-rays, this time of the elbow, and the receptionist is talking on the phone for the first ten minutes, until I mention to Marty that no one would even know we were here if she didn’t finish her call. She hangs up and takes us back. She is the tech. She obviously doesn’t know that ER patients have been sitting for hours and hours before they reach her care.

We are back in our cubby at almost ten, and I’m threatening to leave. My back is killing me, my husband is asleep on the stretcher, and my daughter is crying again and saying fuck a lot. The doctor tells us, again, that the ortho “is coming,” but she’s been coming for the past hour, and the hospital’s not that big. It takes the nurse to tell us that “she’s in surgery, and we have no way of knowing when she’ll be finished.” But! But! You all keep saying she’s coming! As if she’s actually walking toward us! She’s not coming! She’s in surgery! Aware is different from coming! I understand aware! I want to leave, but the nurse reminds us of all the time we have invested. Do we invest ten minutes more or two hours more? Probably somewhere in between, the nurse tells us.

Is all this done to give the patient hope or shield them from the verbal hostility of frustrated patients? Is this the waitress soothing the ire of her hungry customers by telling us again and again that the food will be out shortly, that it’s next up, that she saw it back there, that it’s on the way out to us, even though the kitchen is short-staffed and has its attention on the six omelets that were easier to make than your fancy French Toast?

At last, the ortho arrives, and she spends nearly every moment of the next two hours working on Serena, stopping only to locate a cast saw because the one she had was overheating too quickly and burning Serena and to send us for a third and final, we hoped, x-ray. Fortunately, her break was set properly, and we are discharged. At midnight. Six hours and fifteen minutes after walking through the door.

Serena is just one patient. Some of the people who had arrived before or during our stay were parked on stretchers in the hallways with black eyes and bloody noses or zombiefied or comatose or just slumped over in alcoholic or drug-induced stupors. Or maybe they were just exhausted.

Let me say right now that everyone has been nice, kind, gentle, and generous. I know they were doing their best. And let me add that I haven't a clue about how to run a small business, much less an ER. I'm just a frustrated parent who saw countless missed opportunities to keep someone from waiting an hour for a glass of water. A woman got locked in the bathroom, and an alarm sounded and lights flashed, and the clean-up guy had nothing with which to open the bathroom door! He finally, and not in any real hurry (I guess he knew it wasn't a true emergency), located a screwdriver and opened the door. So I know they're understaffed and overworked (that same guy complained to us he was going on his twelfth hour of work, to which I replied that he was getting paid, and we were paying—not the same thing). I know they have a system. But things don't work this poorly at other hospitals, many of whom have hired independent consultants to fix things. I'm just suggesting that this is a hospital that needs fixing.

So what if the nurse helped one patient from start to finish, handing that patient over to the x-ray tech after cleaning the dripping blood from her chin, x-ray tech then handing the patient to the doctor while the nurse attends to the next patient, on and on until everyone is out of there or in the care of the appropriate specialist within an hour or two? Instead, there’s a waitress walking in and out of twenty cubbyhole rooms taking all the drink orders before putting a single one in, not returning to take the dinner orders until the drinks are up and delivered to each table. Where’s the manager? The food here is not worth suffering through the service.

The Morning Edition eventually closed, but we can make our own breakfast. We can’t stitch our own cuts, take x-rays, dispense pain relievers, set breaks, make casts. Still, it seems like the people who can would want to do it for grateful people, rather than tearful, weary, angry, powerless ones who feel so defeated by the system that they’re ready to walk out with serious injuries to become a drain on somebody else’s emergency room or worse—sit in the halls taking up space and being treated like they’re used to being treated—as though their lives don’t matter, which they believe. They are mostly alone and have no one to fight for them.

When we go in an ER broken, we do not expect to be broken even more. We don’t deserve it. So we either fix the ER (I am looking for a job!), or we wrap our children in foam peanuts and bubble wrap.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

queen of denial

I’m about to lose another pet—my fifth as an adult. Their pictures, two cats and two dogs, sit together on the fireplace mantel; the shot of Cleopatra sits at the other end, waiting to join the group. Cleo is snoring on the dog bed next to my desk. Her eyes are open, but she’s asleep. She is deaf but feels my footsteps on the floor beside her and looks at me with one eye, the other still rolled back. She’s fifteen. Her hair mats in painful lumps behind her ears and back legs, and she’s too fragile to brush, so we sometimes cut the pieces out. A pink skin tag peeks above the black fur between her eyes, which have a blotch of black in each. She’s stiff from arthritis, and a bad disc in her neck makes her walk on her toes. Sometimes her back legs slide out from under her, and sometimes she stands as if gathering strength to lie back down.

I didn’t think she’d make it through the summer. Last week, she didn’t go to the park two days in a row, but on the third, she had a bounce in her step. She hasn’t moved all day today until Marty’s voice boomed, “Cleo, want to go for a walk?” and she bolted upright. She took baby steps to the back door and followed him and Chance outside, went to the park, and walked up a hill.

Cleo wandered into our yard in March of 1996, fell instantly in love with Beowulf, and had five of his babies in August of 1997, while I was pregnant with Serena. (Buddha, the first born, stayed with us. He was hit by a car when Serena was five; before that, hardly a photo of her exists without all or part of Buddha in it.) Wulf, a.k.a. Dogfaceboy, died, shortly after the puppies were born, in Marty’s lap while Serena was a new-born infant.

We all like to think our pets are the smartest, most soulful beasts, but Cleo has always been spectacular, in that border-collie-meets-black-lab way. She chortled and purred and engaged us in incessant rounds of fetch; she caught flying discs and balls high in the air and from a long distance. She played tug of war with sticks, tricking other dogs into letting go of their toys and stealing them. If she wasn’t finished with your affections, she would paw you for continued rubbing or push the ball toward you with her nose, barking until you caved in and threw it. She was always our protector, too. When we went for walks, she wouldn’t follow until the last person had caught up. She liked to bring up the rear, to herd us. This is the last trait to go, though I can’t tell if she’s waiting or just too tired to go on.

Every night, Cleo has to be carried up the stairs, and every morning, she must be carried down. She has twice fallen down the stairs at four a.m. in an attempt to relieve herself on the beautiful rug. Now we have a makeshift gate made of a cork bulletin board, so she pees on the bathroom tile or the hall carpet. Sometimes she poops on my bedroom floor—several hard lumps scattered here and there, and I can’t avoid the late-night landmines as I drag my groggy self to the bathroom.

Cleo pants, but she doesn’t whine. She snores when she sleeps, but she grunts when you rub her right. It’s been ages since she’s wagged her tail or barked, even at the mailman. But she eats. She eats like a crazy old lady with Alzheimers, like Marty’s grandma Ginny, who would sit at the table and finish a large breakfast at 8:30, then come back and yell, “Well, golly, it’s almost 9:00! Isn’t anybody going to feed me?!” Every time I open the refrigerator, she stands in the way, looking and smelling.

Our vet, the one who put Beowulf to sleep when he was moaning and unable to move because of kidney failure, took the last and second best of Cleo’s puppies, named him Timber. I’m sure he would come to us to spare his doggy mommy the frightening drive. But how will I know when she is ready? Every time I think she’s done with the world, she walks up a hill; every time I think she’s improving, she falls down it.

Beowulf’s health declined during my pregnancy, and I sat with him every day, begging him to hang in there until the baby was born. He did it for me, but he didn’t last long after Serena was born. Wulf had never been too sick to snarl at the mailman until one cold February day. His body was limp, and he moaned in pain, so Marty took him outside to the picnic table and stroked his fur and comforted him until Dr. Andrew arrived—on the heels of close friends who loved our dog. The dog lay in Marty’s lap. Andrew took out the needle, and Wulf let out a howl—a long, piercing, pitiful lament. I don't know if that howl said I love you or goodbye or thank you. I don't know if it said take care of the little one. I just pray, whenever I think about it, that it didn't say no, please don't, I'm not ready to go.

I can’t make this decision for Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, no matter how sad she seems to me. Each night, I lie with her on the floor and tell her that we will all miss her so very much, but that it’s OK to stay asleep if she is ready to be done with this world. We will understand.

I whisper into her deaf, matted ear that she doesn’t have to wait for us to catch up anymore.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

come by here

My daughter is about to become a bat mitzvah, literally translated, daughter of the commandments. It’s odd, if not ironic, because she’s already literally the daughter of two nonbelievers, as well as the granddaughter of two agnostic grandmothers and a quietly believing grandfather who hasn’t been to shul for the high holidays in more than a dozen years. And then there’s the matter of Serena having gone to Catholic School since she was three. (Free ham may be a stereotypical dilemma in that old joke, but believe me: for a Jew in Baltimore City, free Catholic school is no dilemma; it’s a no-brainer.)

I was never a bat mitzvah; I think my continued expression of doubt about a god who would allow the Holocaust got me invited to leave Temple Emmanuel’s Sunday school when I was eleven. I never looked back, never pined for any sort of god—other than the pine itself, which if not a deity is certainly omnipresent and tall enough to provide a foreboding reminder that someone big can whoop your ass if you’re not good. And that eternal can of whoopass seems to be humankind’s do-good motivator, else what’s a hell for?

But a few months ago, when my parents offered Serena the chance to learn some Hebrew for thirty minutes a week and have a party at the end of it, I left the choice up to her, with the caveat that once made, the choice could not be undone. If she has had any regrets each week when Norman comes to teach her a new part of the Hebrew she’ll read at the ceremony, they’re all vanished now.

We met Rabbi Geoff over dessert and coffee at my parents’ house. He informed us then that he wasn’t any kind of rent-a-rabbi, and if that’s what we wanted, well, we’d need to find somebody else. He expected more of a familial commitment—weekly, every other week at least. I worried whether Marty, who is already oversaturated with organized religion as a Catholic-school teacher, would balk. But we learned that evening about this new kind of Judaism called Reconstructionist, and we were interested. Though it seems a bit closer to Conservative than to the pick-and-choose Reform we’re used to, its secular humanism focus seemed to light a fire under us all. Instead of concentrating on the worship of a capital-g God, the Reconstructionists concentrate on how we can nurture our lower-case-g godliness. And so we return, once more, to the notion of doing unto others, simply because it’s the right thing to do, rather than because you fear eternal damnation.

September was such a busy month—what with Serena’s band, the Oxi-Morons, practicing five days a week to play out three times—that we could only commit to two meetings. Now we’re all practically begging to see Rabbi Geoff weekly.

I can’t describe what goes on in the large sitting room, which holds two sofas, a bunch of chairs, a coffee table, a piano, a couple of Jewish paintings, and a small table set up for coffee, which Geoff brews fresh so that the whole place smells good when we get there. I just know that we talk. We have a guided discussion about our participation in the world, about the things we love and the way we engage others, and we leave feeling lighter and refreshed, like we’ve sloughed off some dead skin.

Rabbi Geoff gives Serena homework—what’s a tallit? what’s a mitzvah?—so we usually start with a discussion of that. We go over points on a handout, like it’s school, and Serena’s not the only one who participates. But dang, is she ever smart. We discover things about each other (Marty is a thinker, Serena is a feeler, I’m a doer), and we continue our discussion on the drive home.

This week’s lesson was about the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, and what they mean and what are good and bad reasons for following them. Because it’s not so much the commandments (we’re not going to light any Sabbath candles; that’s not who we are) but the intention behind them (lighting those candles says stop, breathe, reflect; work is done).

During our meeting, a black father and son came into the church-slash-synagogue (even the shared building is more than symbolic). They were about twenty minutes early for their discussion group with the rabbi, but Geoff invited them to hang out and wait anywhere in the building. Instead of wandering around, they pulled up a chair and joined in, obviously unaware this was our time. I was initially taken aback—that they just came in and joined us and that the rabbi didn’t tell them he meant anywhere else in the building—but I realized this is exactly what I love so much about being there. Intention. What better way to understand people than to discuss, together, the intention to be good people in the world.

We left the second meeting feeling the same way as the first, looking forward to coming back for another 90 minutes of philosophical thought. It’s luxurious to think! It's luxurious to discuss, to marry abstract thought to concrete action. It's luxurious to put away all the technology and think and talk, to have this preplanned time, like a massage appointment, without feeling the need to rush away to the next chore. For that hour or so, we engage each other, and our minds meet. It’s as if they are holding each other’s hands and singing Kumbaya. I’m not being sarcastic. I mean Kumbaya, “come by here,” as it was traditionally sung to represent both a human and a spiritual meeting. I wouldn't mind adding a guitar and a fire, maybe a beer, but it's delicious as is.

Look, I’m not ready to run off and join a synagogue; I still have my doubts as to whether organized religion, even one that seems to focus on a secular humanism, albeit with a Jewish bent, does good. But I don’t feel any kind of conflicted about my daughter becoming a daughter of the commandments, especially when some of those commandments can be expressed with a commitment to recycling and giving to charity.

And I like the idea that my daughter now has some sort of spiritual guidance available to her. For almost thirteen years, we’ve answered Serena’s religious questions and educated her about traditions and customs as openly and without prejudice as we could, but I want her to come into her own beliefs the way I came into mine, and I am grateful, and somewhat relieved, that she now has someone who can coax her gently into godliness. And she's excited, too, because she has always felt apart from the Catholic community, in whose buildings she spends so many hours a day.

I am especially proud to be the mother of this daughter of the commandments.

Monday, September 13, 2010

she will rock you—if there's time

My daughter is running for student council president. I'm torn. She's a great kid who will do a great job. But when will she have the time?

I used to tsk at all those moms out there with multiple kids and a mini-van, moms who had a full-time job just in carting their kids around. My best friend has two children in two different schools many miles apart. The son plays a sport that practices an hour away, takes a weekly instrument lesson, has hockey games on the weekend; he's also in a band with Serena. The daughter has high-school stuff. But their mom works more than thirty hours a week and has little help from her soon-to-be ex-husband, who lives an hour away. How she doesn't melt down is beyond my comprehension. I melt down just making this list.

Yesterday was the first full band practice in weeks (the Oxi-morons have six members). Afterward, the parents sat down at the table to schedule rehearsals; they have a paying gig coming up. The nine-year-old drummer lives an hour north but goes to the same school as four of the kids; the ten-year-old bassist lives twenty minutes away but goes to a different school and has a math tutor, an instrument lesson, and Arena Rock rehearsal at School of Rock each week—as well as two working parents who can't get him here. Two kids have music lessons and soccer, and one of them is on the Tom Petty show at SoR. Serena gave up her soccer, reluctantly, realizing that she couldn't fit it in among the two weekly SoR (Tom Petty and Led Zeppelin) rehearsals; the once-weekly TWIGS saxophone clinic, guitar lessons, and bat mitzvah lessons; and the daily practice for each thing, in addition to weekday homework, band practice, and daily care for a bearded dragons. What do we do if she becomes president?

I've seen all those articles about over-achieving kids, parents who push their sons and daughters to be all they can be before their sixteenth birthday; I still tsk at them. But sometimes the parents are pushing the kids to drop something. Heaven knows we don't want to be their chauffeurs. How do you choose a thing to take away? Sports are good for kids' bodies, and music is good for their minds—and both teach teamwork, cooperation, good sportsmanship, and things I find so much more useful to them than homework.

Serena has been sick for three weeks; I've been down for two. We finally had a spare moment Sunday morning, and I took us to Patient First. We returned with two antibiotic prescriptions—hers for strep, mine for a sinus infection. After yesterday's band practice, the girl sat at the kitchen table watching a rerun of a dumb sit-com on Disney—one of the shows about kids with no parents or magic parents or parents so rich they're on a perpetual cruise. My husband hates that she watches it and gave her the usual raft of crap about it.

I had to remind him of all the things she does well, including the fact that she's a straight-A student who can play Pink Floyd's "Us and Them" on saxophone—and that she did much of it for the first three weeks of school while having strep and a cold! So what if she wants to veg out in front of the TV or play a game on the computer? So what if there's a witch riding a bicycle through the smelly-socks air in her room?

This morning, I fed her Throat Soother tea, oatmeal, and a banana. She didn't have time to drink all the tea or eat any of the banana. And right now, she's giving the speech she worked on until 9:00 p.m. yesterday, and then the kids will vote. My fingers are crossed. If she wins, she goes to meet the mayor. If she doesn't, it's one less thing to do. May she get the thing she needs.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

it's only rock and roll, tyrone

The river’s muddy guts had backed up, exploded
Spillin’ out the facts, fast and a lot
Spillin’ out the facts of the city’s dirty secrets
Like a city surfacing from out of the brack

"It's Only Money Tyrone," Marah

I saw my favorite still-together (though sometimes just barely) band last weekend at the 8x10. They played to about twenty still-living (though sometimes just barely) people. It was a Sunday night. As if that were an excuse.

Marah is Nick Hornby’s favorite band, too (About A Boy, High Fidelity); you can trust him. Trust Sarah Vowell and Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. But most of all trust me. You missed something serious.1

Favorite has different manifestations these days. As a kid, I pinned pictures of my favorites to the bedroom wall. If the poster was nice, I caught the corners with the flat part of the tack, rather than poke a hole in the paper, a trick my decorator mother taught me. I clipped and collected articles about the bands from Creem and Circus and Trouser Press and any other magazine that featured them. I knew all the members’ names and what they looked like and all the lyrics to all the songs and owned all the records, including the Japanese bootlegs and the colored vinyls, which I bought at Howie’s Music Machine in Pikesville, where, it seemed, older hipsters spent the entire day in their leather jackets, leaning on the racks, listening to music no one else had ever heard of, where I spent the day when I became an older hipster, leaning, listening. If Ivan Kral had walked down any street, I’d have recognized him. No way could Lenny Kaye or Earl Slick or Julian Cope escape me.

When you got home from the record store, you could run your fingernail down the middle of your album jacket, which was wrapped in thin cellophane, and in seconds you were transported to a place you stayed for hours. If you were lucky, inside would be something more than just a white sleeve with a circular cutout that made the record label visible. Lyrics were especially precious, but posters were adored. And there was another secret about a record: in that end space of smooth, unrecorded vinyl, you could sometimes find a hand-printed message like “ANT MUSIC….”

So who are Marah? They are a gritty, loud rock band, in the tradition of Springsteen—but with the edge of the Replacements and the poetry of Dylan. I would probably recognize the lead singer/guitarist and founding member, Dave Bielanko, on the street, but only the fishnets gave Christine Smith away in the ladies room at 8x10. I don’t know all the words to a single song by heart except the second best song ever recorded, “It’s Only Money Tyrone.”2 I think I know the name of only one album (Kids in Philly) besides the new one.

Part of the blame falls on a group that keeps breaking up and replacing its members. I asked the newest, guitarist Bruce Derr, why Marah frequently disbands. Hired three months ago for the tour, Derr’s not even on the latest record, Life is a Problem (which was released on vinyl and cassette). “It’s definitely not Dave,” he said. “Dave’s one of the six nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

My friend Kim and I don’t really believe him, partly because Dave's the one constant, and partly since Bielanco basically called us all douches when we didn’t clap at the end of one of the songs. I think we were awestruck. Honestly, even if we could tell the song was finished, the band immediately started the next without a pause, and then Dave mumbled a conversation with himself about our lack of applause.

Dave, we loved it. You are brilliant.

“I really don’t know why [members quit],” Derr said. It's not like they bitch and gripe in the van, which carries the four men and one woman and all their gear from here to there to way over there, with Bielanko and Derr at the wheel; they're the ones who don't drink. Mostly, he told me, they ride in a comfortable quiet.

I'd like to give the talented (keyboards, accordion, harmonica, vocals, coolness) Christine Smith a medal for sticking it out so long—“five and a half years—longer than anybody,” she said. Except Dave, the only original member of the band on this tour.

But that’s a small part of the story. Most of the blame lies with the digital download. It is bad enough wrestling with a CD’s shrink wrap, then trying to pry the too-sticky silver tape from the ends before getting the damned thing open, only to crack the door off the plastic case. Sometimes you get lyrics and photos inside, but, Sonny, I’m too old and tired and busy to get my magnifying glass to read that shit. And when it’s one of those fancy folding things, trying to refold it and squeeze it back into the slot of the front of the case when it’s suddenly expanded and puffed out, like a fucking map, is even more frustrating. And then—FUCK this CD, bitch! YOU listen to it.

Now we have the digital download. We go to iTunes and buy whatever songs we want, sometimes not even a band’s whole album. We stick the songs on our iPods, where they compete with a thousand other songs we’ve not listened to enough, and now what? How do we know the words or the band members’ faces if we are not listening to the records in our bedrooms all day long, staring at the album cover, the images and words etching themselves forever in our minds the way serial numbers and “ANT MUSIC…” “FOR SEX PEOPLE” are etched in the vinyl of Adam and the Ants’ first album?

Who the hell is Marah? No wonder you missed them. But I didn’t. I didn’t miss one moment of their energy and power. I didn’t miss the chance to yell, “ONLY MONEY!” when it looked like Dave was trying to decide which last two songs to do, and I didn’t miss him say, “Yeah, let’s make this one count” to Bruce, who did make it count.

I didn’t miss the chance to hear my new number one favorite song of all time, live, like they meant it, like it's never been played before, ever, from my favorite band, Marah.

1You miss something serious when you miss Chuck Prophet, too.*

2”Thunder Road.”**

* I would say you’re missing something serious when you miss Bob Schneider, but I’m wishing a lot of you drunk fratboys and party girls would miss that show altogether and leave him to the drunk grownups.

**The Boys are Back in Town” is number 3.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

summer lovin', had me a blast

Today, I nearly suffocated in my daughter’s room, buried alive under a mountain of clothing, a lot of it gorgeous, most of it too small. Half still had tags; the other half was barely worn because my daughter prefers to wear the same pair of shorts and the same Beatles t-shirt every day. After she’s worn something else, she drops it on the floor of her closet, where it soon becomes buried under the next thing that’s not her favorite shorts. For two hours this morning, she tried on everything, every single piece of clothing, including costumes appropriated for School of Rock shows. As the hills of shirts, pants, dresses, and school clothes eroded, new mountains formed—these marked for uniform exchange night or a friend's daughter or her cousins. I filled paper shopping bags until they tore. The air in Serena's room was suddenly oppressive, mixed with fabric chemical smell and anxious lizard smell and stress armpit smell—mine and hers. We had to take a break before tackling the drawers.

This is part of our back-to-school ritual. So are wondering whether we skipped this back-to-school ritual last year and lamenting the brisk disappearance of summer vacation. What too-moist beast ate the days? Yet when I look back on the friendships I forged in three short months, the places I visited1, the pictures I took, the nose I pierced, the concerts2 and meals and leisurely drinks I enjoyed, I feel fulfilled and lucky.

While my husband was on his annual retreat in Zion Canyon, Utah, his personal mecca, from where he sent us amazing letters, we were each supposed to write a song to be played upon his return. Serena started some complicated piece about Freddie Kruger. Marty played some chords he didn’t commit to memory. But I did my assignment with gusto, writing what I call “The Country-ass Song.” The lyrics start like this:

You keep moonshine whiskey on the kitchen sink
So when you’re doin’ the dishes you can take a drink
And wash it all away
Like you try to do every day

Spy your girl through the window on the tire swing
You always told your baby she could do anything
But so could you
And this is what you choose to do

So no regrets, no tears
Throw in the towel
Toss back a few more beers.

It’s not autobiographical. Well, the beers part, maybe. But I do like my days. Even today. Especially today. This kind of purge and reorganization is spiritually cleansing and enlightening (note to relatives and friends: don’t buy the girl anything pink or with any kind of heart or flower or bow). Sure, summer’s a tough act to follow—this weekend alone is jam packed with concerts and dinners and lunches and company. But autumn always kicks ass!

Now, post-ritualistic closet upheaval, I feel more ready to let go of the summer of 2010, one of the hottest summers on record; the summer of Resurrection in a can; the summer of a bouffant ‘do and Hairspray at the pool; of running five miles again; of dinner and drinks with my homegirl, Sheri Booker, and our agent, Betsy Lerner; sushi with Bahhhhhhhb’s drummer; crabcakes with Monica Mansfield. So long, summer of poetry and music and friends and one delightful, glittery gem twinkling beside my nostril.

Shameless Plugs

1I spent the perfect amount of time at the beach—with my sister’s family and my daughter, as well as with a new friend, Betsy Merrill. I overcame my fear of flying to attend the Madison, Wisconsin wedding celebration of a dear friend, Gabi Helfert, overcoming severe stage fright to play her and her new partner (and my new dear friend), Joey Johannsen, a song. I stayed with a beautiful woman, Lee Davenport, whom I met online, and visited with the talented printmaker, Tracy Ducasse, my funniest friend , Teena, and the beautiful writer, Carrie Kilman. People visited me, too—like Janer and Joy, two pals from back when the Internet was only just invented! My house has been full of love this summer. One good pal, Monica Mansfield, examined my old dog, Cleo, and brought her medicine; instant love right there. And Gail Dragon was my buddy for an overnighter, seeing Jason Ager at a tea house before driving home to North Carolina. I relished my time with BFFs, too—Kim Webster, Kim Stanbro.

2Peter Frampton, Yes, Bahhhhhhhb (Bob Schneider, for the uninitiated), Taylor and Evan, Justin Trawick (this Friday, 8x10, CD release!), Jason Ager, The Dead [Fucking] Weather(!). And the best: I watched my daughter nail sax, guitar, and vocals on The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and I watched her band, the Oxi-Morons, play a block party. Oh, and she plays again Saturday and Sunday at Angel's Rock bar, the hits of 1970, followed Sunday by Marah!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


When she discovered that the glittery gem on my nose went all the way through it, my mother cried. “You’re forty- [inaudible mumbling],” she stuttered through the tears, as if there were a deadline on body mutilation.

The good news is that since it’s not a pre-existing condition (like tattoos and, now, tongue piercing), I’m not out of the will. And after the initial shock, it was business as usual—telling jokes at brunch, planning my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I sat to the right of my mother, the glittery booger visible only to my husband and daughter.

No one who has seen me has asked why I did it. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem out of character. Maybe it looks as though it’s always been there. When I tell people on the phone or online, about half of them ask why.

I did it because I could. Because it would only hurt for a minute. I did it because I met a woman twenty-five years ago, a waitress at Bertha’s, who had a stud in her nose, and she was exquisite—certainly not in spite of it and maybe not even because of it, but it gave her a pinch of exotica. Since that day I longed for one of my own. I did it because it had just enough risk—a little bit of pain but not too much, a little bit of permanence but not too dramatic should I decide to just rock the empty large pore for the rest of my life. And it’s pretty. I like it. I can’t think of a better reason than the last one.

For awhile, I got the stick-on kind, just to see how it would look. When I’d remember, which was rarely, I’d carefully remove one diamond chip from the adhesive and drop it down the bathroom sink drain. Then, with the drain stopper in place, I’d remove a second one and affix it with Liquid Bandage, which would sting and smell bad for a few seconds. I’d go out somewhere, and, within an hour or two, I would scratch my eye, accidentally brushing against the chip, which would disappear into the ether.

Those who’d caught its glint would ask me if I finally went and did it. When I’d say it was a stick-on, I could see both their relief and their disappointment. Perhaps the relief was more because they didn’t have to imagine the pain of the needle. But the disappointment was, to me, more palpable.

I am not a faker. I have never pretended to be something I’m not, never lied about my skills, not even on a job application or my résumé. I had fake nails for my wedding only; I bit them off on my honeymoon. I color my hair, but it’s real color on real hair. I don’t pretend to like bands just because they’re cool.1 And I don’t lie.2

I’d given up the idea a month ago when a friend told me I’d have to take it out for surgery or x-rays, that the hole would never close. And then I thought: who lives that way? Who makes a decision based on what would happen should she ever need surgery? So when my sister told me on the boardwalk that she’d asked about the nose piercing at Dimensions and that she’d pay for half, I started to consider it seriously. Serena came in with us and whined the whole time, having just been turned upside-down (by choice) and around and around (also by choice) and become so sick that only a snowball would make her feel better. So we left, and I vowed to give it serious thought. That night, I talked to my husband for a half hour. He’d already hated the idea, even though he didn’t think it looked bad at all. And when he finally said what I wished all people would say—“It’s your body; I have no right to tell you what to do with it”—fate was sealed.3

I prepared my daughter, who also hated the idea, and sent her to the pool with her cousins and uncle. I chased a beer with a big shot of vodka from the freezer (thanks, Tom), and gave Beth the keys to my car. She drove me to Dimensions, where I handed over my ID, signed the Health Department’s forms, and picked my nose ring. I waited upstairs. When it was my turn, I sat in a big scary chair and watched the tattooed dude open the big scary autoclaved tools. My sister squeezed my hand. At some point, while the big scary needle was dangling from my nose, she stopped looking.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I said.

“That was the easy part,” the dude said. And then he put the jewel in.

“Ow,” I said. But I was completely still, unlike my sister, whose face was buried in my back. When it was over, it stung a little, but it wasn’t awful. We went back to the condo, and I took a swim, after which it bled a bit. And, with the exception of the occasionally pawing in the night, it’s only given me a moment of trouble.

With my mom. And only for a moment.

* * * * *

1I’m sorry, Vampire Weekend and Decemberists. [yawn]

2In fact, there’s only one lie I’ve told with regularity, and it had to do with whether I was smoking. I have not smoked since I was pregnant—not even once—but I used to keep my smoking habits secret from my family.*

*Then again, it’s totally within my power to shave a few inches off my thighs in a self-portrait, to lighten the dark circles under my eyes, to smooth out the kinks and dings in my skin. But that’s art. And, with the exception of nonfiction, art can’t lie.

3I ask because we are a team. And though he can’t prevent me from poking a hole in my nose or writing on my skin, I respect his opinion, and his unhappiness with my decision would make this a mistake.