Monday, March 30, 2009


I recently sold some gigantic (18" x 18") enlargements of birds on a wire—three different shots. While I was signing one of them, my extra-fine Pilot Razor Point ran out of ink. It’s about time, really; I think Pilot stopped making them ten years ago. Finding a pen compatible with my personality (the Razor Point was perfect for my former sharp tongue) became a priority, even on a day when my daughter and I were both home with pinkeye.

So I took Serena to a makeup girls’ lunch at her favorite pizza joint. I usually pick her up before mass on the last day of school before Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks and take her to Mamma Lucia, but this Christmas, I was indisposed. We wiped our seeping eyes, donned our dark sunglasses, and went out for a slice.

My ulterior motive was Office Depot across the street, where I could get a new box of black extra-fine-point markers. They’re imperative, as I’m expecting a giant carton of 35 copies of The Book to arrive sometime in the next week or so, and I have to send them, signed, to a few of the people who helped me. Forget those boring black and blue felt tips! Sharpies now come in every color, in every nib size.

We returned from lunch with several of them in a few colors: The Book pink, The Book blue, black, and a single lime green of my daughter’s choosing. Signs that she’d been practicing her own autograph remain on the kitchen sideboard. (Her generation might actually need to practice it, now that they pay bills online and don’t have the exercise of signing a slew of checks every month.)

Now comes the question of what to write, besides my name. No one will even be able to read the scrawl that represents Leslie F. Miller. So what pithy slogan can I make my own? “Thank you” is not sweet enough. “Cake or Death” belongs to another. “Mmm…Cake!” another. “Did someone say cake?” is Mr. Ratburn's line and too long anyway. Pie’s easy: “Semper Pie” would be my motto. Or “Pie’s the limit.” But cake? “Leslie F. Miller eats cake and leaves”? That’s nuts.

I have collected a few autographs, mostly from musicians: handwritten notes from Ivan Kral (Patti Smith’s bassist), Rick Nielsen, and Jane Siberry. I have the names of all the members of Cheap Trick on a wrinkled piece of paper. Bob Schneider and his band, Willy Porter, and Natalia Zukerman have signed my copies of their CDs. And when I met Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs at the Marble Bar in the early eighties, I had him sign a painting I made of him, complete with a blue car potato print stamp. ("Blue cars, big beat, dead on my feet.") He wrote "Into you like a train," misleading unless you know it's a Furs song.

Most of the time, those names remind me of a meeting with them, like when Kip Winger stole my notebook at Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp to write “Rock on!” Right now, my fridge wears an autograph—just a name, no frills—from Victor Wooten, who spoke to the kids at Serena’s school. She stood in line to get it and the reminder of the time their presence was graced by the king of bass.

In two weeks, I head to Philadelphia to tape an interview for “A Chef’s Table”; afterwards, I’m supposed to go to bookstores to sign stock. My husband wants to know who would buy a book just because it’s signed. But that’s how I came to read The Frog King, a fabulous book by Adam Davies. And it’s why I had finally picked up a book on my list, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. My mom has a whole collection of first-edition, signed Edward Gorey books.

Marty wouldn’t stand in line for an autograph, but he wouldn’t take a picture, either. Most of the time, his memory suffices—he smiles when he remembers shaking Nelson Mandela’s hand at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and he talked guitar with Willy Porter while I was snapping away and getting a signature.

But maybe an autograph represents something else entirely—not just proof of a meeting or a desire to increase the value of a work of art. Isn’t it the artist’s seal? Sometimes I ask people not to use my name when I’m not fond of what I was forced to create. But a signature on The Book would say: I’m Leslie F. Miller, and I approve this publication—despite the mistakes I’ve made and my persistent battles with The Suck Voice.

Maybe my signature slogan should be a reminder to myself, just as much as it is a message to the reader.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

fact: everything dies, baby

for Sheri

Granny died yesterday. So did Natasha Richardson.

Whenever someone famous dies, I am torn between sadness for them and their families (and even a little bit of a pang of loss for me if I have appreciated their artistic or political or philosophical contributions to the world) and slight, often illogical, indignation. What about all those other people who die every day, some after lengthy suffering? We don't hear about them on the news.

But this is the way it probably should be. The news would be bad and endless if the deaths of regular Joes were reported daily. Famous people can use their recognition to help bring awareness to certain causes and catastrophes—and it helps all of their victims and survivors. Michael J. Fox’s advocacy has helped everyone who suffers from Parkinson’s; he’s just the poster child. (And a mighty attractive one.)

Natasha Richardson’s death is a tragedy for many reasons, least of all her fame. She died from injuries sustained by a normal fall during a beginner’s skiing lesson. She was seven months younger than I am. It could’ve been anyone. My sister. Me.

Granny’s death is tragic, too—more in some ways, less in others. Mary Regina Booker, “Big Ma,” lived a long, healthy life. But my good friend Sheri, her granddaughter, is suffering.

It is comforting for many families, wealthy and poor, famous and not, to believe in heaven as a place where all good souls go to get their rewards from God. I am kind of hooked on the notion of soul recycling, a reincarnation of sorts, with an emphasis on the carnation part.

It has been the worst winter of my life—surpassing the winter of 1998, when I lost my dog, Beowulf, and my grandmother, Ruth Weitz, within weeks of each other. But my daughter had just been born—valuable prizes were exchanged. This winter was full of suffocating physical and emotional pain.

Outside my door, a forsythia is busting loose with such a ferocity that you can feel both its urgency and its gratitude. Along the median strip, star magnolia buds that seem to have appeared overnight pop with snowy blossoms. In another week, the whole two miles of my street will be twinkling with new life.

I like to think Granny and Natasha Richardson and all the others who have died continue to cash in their energy to make that happen. “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”*

- - - - -

*The quote is from Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City"; the title of this essay was also paraphrased from that song. (I'm itching to say DUH. I'm also itching to give myself a blowout and some lipstick and meet Bruce—anywhere at all.)

P.S. As I hit the PUBLISH POST button, I got an email from Bruce Springsteen's people. I was worried it was some sort of threat of prosecution for uploading his song. Instead, it's an announcement that he will be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (another I wouldn't mind meeting anywhere) this evening, March 19, at 11:00 p.m. (again tomorrow at 8:00 p.m.). So I guess I will meet him tonight. And I probably don't need to worry about my hair.

Friday, March 6, 2009

expecto patronum

Thanks to The Hero Factory, where you make a superhero in your own (albeit way-skinnier) image, I’ve put a positive spin on my limp. In the last step, after you pick your hair and clothing, you choose a weapon. The guns were pretty impressive, and the nunchucks were exotic. But I couldn’t resist the big stick. When at last I was satisfied with the boots and the hair and the weapon, my superhero was revealed to me: The Fancy Walking Wizard. I’m lucky I don’t need her just now.

On the night I broke my tooth, I thought about alternatives to living.

For about two months, I was nothing like Fancy Walking Wizard. I was one of the Dementors from the Harry Potter books, sucking the soul out of every room I entered, swallowing sounds, suffocating life. Even my eyes were dark, echoic places, windows to a soulless body. As Ron Weasley so aptly described the feeling, it was as if I’d “never be cheerful again.”

I don’t believe in angels or heaven or even the garden variety capital-g god; to me, they are the stuff of novels, like Dementors; all illusion, like magic. But I have been intimate with the soul sucking dark forces. And I was rescued by the super-heroic humans who chose to battle them.

I ratted myself out, and it was like a TV cop calling for backup or white blood cells moving into action upon detection of a bodily threat. Suddenly my corner filled up: a retired therapist who knew it was serious this time; a too-busy psychiatrist who made room for me; an entire community of busy moms who made sure that my family was fed, three meals a week for nearly two months; girlfriends who sat with me, dragged me kicking and screaming to lunches, brought me gifts, and tried their damnedest to pep talk me out of the shit; virtual friends who refused to let my self-worth diminish; a personal trainer who hugged me when I cried about my lack of physical and emotional fitness; and my family, who endured and persevered and never let go of my hand, even though I was, so many days, drowning but not waving.

All of these people got into position around my dead-weight body, like girls at the slumber party, each with two fingers under me, and I couldn’t help but be levitated right out of that hole, even though I was so very heavy.

On my first day above it, even if slightly, I went to the gym to sign up for therapy. That night, my husband, my daughter, and I sat at the kitchen table eating dinner, and I cracked what might have been my first joke in three months. I don’t remember whether it was funny; my daughter’s expression eclipsed everything. She laughed. I don’t mean that. It wasn’t a laugh. It wasn’t a chuckle or a cackle. It was a—a patronus! It was a big gleaming mythical beast made out of electrical sparks. It was as if she’d been holding her breath for a lifetime and had just released it in the form of pure, undiluted, unadulterated, perfect, breathtaking, awesome gladness.