Monday, December 3, 2012

love bedes

On the oak bookshelf in Jim Hill’s treatment room—or torture chamber, if you’re me—sits a stone bust of Quan Yin (Kwan Yin, Kuanyin, Guanyin), Chinese goddess of mercy.  If you’re me, she’s an ironic figure, considering that my cries during his weekly shiatsu-acupressure treatments do not temper the intensity of Jim’s elbow jabs or finger pokes.  Then again, Quan Yin lives in the suffering. 

Quan Yin means one who sees and hears the cry from the human world.1  She hears prayers and observes sounds.  And this is Jim, who, during treatment, will often stop what he’s doing to fix a pain in me that he can feel within himself. 

If you’re me, you don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo until it happens to you.  And it happens every week.

I covet that bust.  I want to cover it with shards of pottery.  Sometimes, when I’m in the thick of it during a two-hour treatment, I’ll meditate on Quan Yin, who, until today, I thought was a skinny, female Buddha.  I close my eyes and breathe and think about her beauty and watchfulness and all the broken teacups I would glue to the flat bridge of her nose.  I think about her mosaic head and about spring.  I think about a strand of beads, too.

Jim and his wife Karen make jewelry—glass beads and whatever can be made from them.  Some are Klimt-like, ornamental for ornament’s sake.  Juxtapose Jim—he of the comfortable sandals and chokers and new-age spirit (he even teaches t’ai chi) with glitzy, decadent beads and flashy, hand-made findings, golden curlicues sprouting from necklaces like tentacles. 

I first met the Hills at the Out of Hand craft fair at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Homeland probably 15 years ago.  My mom had bought something from them—it might have had a Klimt painting as the center medallion—from the ACC Craft Fair.  Out of Hand is held each year on the first Sunday in December, and it’s an annual tradition for me, my mother, and my sister. 

Though it’s a small space with only about 20 vendors, many of them the same year after year, it’s choice stuff.  Potter Elaine Ozol was there most years, with her wonderful pumpkin pots and moon mugs.  I went to college with her son and always enjoyed catching up.  My commercial-art teacher from high school, Ed Smith, sold his wicked cool clocks before he died.  He thought I was a weirdo, but I think he was weirder, and I loved that about him. Sandy Magsamen is there every year; she painted a cover of Joe, my coffee magazine; it's hanging in my kitchen. The year before last, the Masking Tape Guy was there, and my mom commissioned my favorite present ever—a masking-tape portrait of me surrounded by crows.

But she couldn’t make it this year; Mom was on Long Island at a bar mitzvah or something.  My sister was taking her boards so she could give Novocain needles.  I took my friend Kim, who’d never been—and who was a good sport when I made her traipse around the graveyard next door in the foggy cold.  When we got there, I checked in with the button lady on behalf of my mom.  She had a knowing look in her eye when she asked if everyone was OK.  I told her that my father had died, and we both cried a little.  She came out of the booth to hug me and tell me that she is now driving my uncle’s car after having answered an ad for it on Craigslist.

I bought a pair of earrings from Mary DeMarco, as usual, ogled some silver jewelry with birds on it, and got a WORD onesie for one of my dearest friends (who had her baby today!).  And then I visited the Hills.

Karen’s jewelry is more my mom’s style.  But last year, I fell in love with some single-strand love bead necklaces.  They were pricey, or I’d have bought one on the spot.  I have thought about it all year—always meant to ask about getting one at a because-I’m-a-weekly-shiatsu-customer discount.  Nearly every visit, I’d meditate on one of those necklaces, and I’d forget to ask.  There they were, still nearly $200 because of all the antique, 100+-year trade beads on them.  Maybe after Christmas, I said.  I couldn’t justify it right now.

I walked around a bit more and poked my head in the food area.  My mom and sister and I would usually get a snack there—a muffin or a cookie or some savory pie.  Those lunches were made by the former owners of Puffins, a vegetarian restaurant with some of the best food anywhere.  They and the Hills are best friends.  Their daughter was married to my father’s business partner until recently.

I introduced Kim to “my shiatsu guy” and Karen, and she went off to look for gifts.  Karen called me over with an offer.  “I want to trade you,” she said.  “One of these necklaces for one of your calendars.”  I laughed.  Ten calendars, she meant.  No.  She just wanted a new calendar, like the one I gave them last year. 

I left with the necklace and plans to ritualize it.  I dunno—maybe I’ll wave some sage over it and say a prayer.  Jim tells me that the word for bead and the word for prayer are the same. (So prayer bead is redundant.)

I had a shiatsu treatment today, instead of my usual Thursday.  I asked Jim if I could take a picture of the Buddha head, and he finally corrected me: “Actually, she is Quan Yin, goddess of beauty and mercy.” Maybe he'd told me before, but I was too busy meditating on Buddha.

I took off my necklace and hung it on her, saying, “Maybe after they hang here for two hours, they’ll be infused with her mercy.  I’ll put the necklace back on, and my wrinkles will disappear.”

After the treatment, I put the necklace back on, and I smiled.

Now if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I'm not not happy. Hope you're not not happy, too.

“'I’m happy
hope you’re happy, too.
…sordid details following.'”
—David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”

My face is naturally like this. 

At rest, my lips curl slightly downward.  Engaged in an activity like talking or kissing or eating, my lips, not too thick or too thin, move.  When something is funny or beautiful or delicious, their corners turn upward, and sometimes they draw back their pale mauve curtain to reveal a few off-white teeth.  It is not infrequent.  But in that split second when you or I take a picture of me, it might be gone.

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, strangers tell me to smile.  I could be in line at the grocery store or walking down the street or at my desk or at the park enjoying a beautiful day, and someone will invariably confront me with his or her demand and, worse, adding fuel to my ire, a rationale for it: “Smile! It can’t be that bad!”

“Can’t it?” I’d always wanted to say.  Instead, I’d alternate between scrunching up my face like a pet monkey to give the people what they wanted or ignoring them.  A few years ago, I decided I’d had enough. 

“How do you know my mother didn’t just die?” I said to the stranger in front of me in line at Safeway.  My heart was beating out of my chest, as if saying that aloud could make it happen.  The man was flustered and apologetic.  “Well, she didn’t,” I said, with more admonishment than reassurance.  “But how do you know?  How can you presume to know what’s happening in a stranger’s life?”  He paid and left, threatening to never ask another person to smile.

Once I got over the superstition hump—that making such a comment would actually make my mother die—it became easier to say to the next person and the next.  And as I grew older, I could use real experiences—from the deaths of friends and loved ones to financial woes to back surgery and lymphoma.  Still, some smilers are steadfast in their belief that merely waking up at all warrants a shit-eating grin. 

What empowers people to tell pregnant women what to eat and implore non-smilers to smile? 

My daughter is a non-smiler, too.  The other day, she uttered these exact words, the words of my life, to her father: “My face is naturally like this.”  She added, “I’m not not smiling.  I’m just not smiling!”

Yesterday, I posted a photograph of my daughter sitting at the piano.  She was waiting for her date to arrive and take her to the homecoming dance at his school.  She was in a dress, her hair curled, her face clear and beautiful.  I took a picture of her—an annoying habit of mine—and posted it as the daily picture in my photo diary on Facebook.  A few of the usual suspects were moved to comment on her facial expression—or lack thereof.  She was not not smiling. 

But their observation went beyond her face to her spirit.  “She looks happy,” someone said sarcastically.  Another said, “just needs a smile.”  When I replied that we’re not smilers, the friend said, “It’s ok as long as you are happy.”

But I’m not happy.  For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me.  I tried to diagnose myself.  I believed I had dysthymia.  I was convinced I needed medication for it until I realized that a.) lack of a consistently high mood doesn’t mean that my mood is low (“I’m not not smiling”) and  b.) happiness is not normal.1  

Are you happy? In general or just when you’re doing something you love?  Perhaps you’re the rare sunny personality, and your smile lights up a room.  Maybe you’re content or at peace with your circumstances.  Maybe you feel sheer joy when the sunset is breathtaking.  Maybe you wake up and thank your god or lucky stars that you didn’t stop breathing in your sleep. 

But regardless of how you feel: do you think happiness is within everyone’s power or, more important, is everyone’s will?

It’s in our Declaration of Independence that we are guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!  Because we are always going to seek that which brings us joy, but do we ever remain in a permanent state of happiness once we surround ourselves with those things we think will cause it?

"I'm stuck with a valuable friend," sings David Bowie in "Ashes to Ashes."  "'I'm happy, hope you're happy, too.'"  Enough already!  I don’t want to be happy.  I want to enjoy the things in life as they really are, as they move me.  I want to revel in the barking of crows and their congregation at rush hour in the tree across the street.  I want to get naturally high on the pride that comes from my daughter’s music.  I want to lust after rock stars and eat the hell out of cake and red curry duck.  And, yes, I want to wallow in the sadness of my father’s death until the day that driving past the hospital or the funeral home or a Lexus, seeing hospital socks in my drawer, hearing his voice in my head, or needing a rescue stops making me cry.

My poetry doesn’t come from tra-la-la-everything-is-beautiful feelings.  Happiness is not necessary for me to go to work, raise a child, sing, write, take pictures, pay my bills, cuddle with my dogs, make love to my husband, cook dinner, breathe.  I treat myself to good beer and pretty boots and original art.  Happy?  Who cares if I’m happy? Happy has nothing to do with it.

I’m not not happy.  I’m not not smiling.  What about you?

1Here are a few other things that aren’t normal: thoughts of suicide, the desire to hurt yourself and/or others, the inability to get out of bad, excessive sleepiness or excessive wakefulness, lack of sexual desire, constant despair.  This is not a complete list.  If you have any of those symptoms, please ask for help.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Tit Show!

I was on WYPR's "The Signal" this weekend with Aaron Henkin.  Here's the interview.  For the entire episode, go to The Signal.

I did this interview to promote poetry and The Tit Lit Show at the Creative Alliance this Thursday!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

armed against cancer

In a photograph, Susan Spence is wearing a green swimsuit covered with peace signs, her outstretched arms revealing names written in grease marker. These are the people for whom she will swim the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay: in honor of those on the left, in memory of those on the right.

She and her brother had returned to their childhood passion of swimming to assuage their grief and loss after a series of family tragedies. As a result of her participation in the Bay Swim, Susan was put on a mailing list announcing the inaugural Baltimore event for Swim Across America, a national organization donating to cancer research centers in major cities. When she read that it would benefit the Kimmel Center at Johns Hopkins, she was all in.

"I knew my return to swimming had a bigger purpose than just relieving stress," Susan says. In September of 2006, she lost her sister, Chris Weitzel, to metastasized cancer, origins unknown, just six months after her diagnosis. Before she started treatment, however, Chris lost her husband, ostensibly to broken-heart-syndrome, so Sue accompanied her to chemo at Kimmel, where she says she was treated with compassion and professionalism.

Swim Across America was a convergence of her passion for swimming and her love for her sister.

Tomorrow is the anual event, and Susan, combining passion with cause, will continue her tradition of writing on her arms the names of those touched by cancer. "Unfortunately," she says, "some of those people had moved over this past year to the 'in memory of' [arm].

This year, I am sorry to say that I have had to add to the lists on both arms, and my arms are not long enough."

But they are strong.

When I wrote this Swim Across America story for Johns Hopkins  Magazine, Susan's portion was cut.  She was my lede and my close.  Two days ago, I received an email from her that at least two more names would be added to her arms, one on each.  They are mine and my father's.  Thank you, Susan.  Thank you.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


When I started my MFA program at Goucher College, my mind was in a frantic race for a thesis.  Would I write Kisstory: The History of the Kiss?  Would I write The Law of Average: How Mediocre Became the New Great?  Would I finally write the book of essays—about running and climbing, amusement park riding, and camping: Things That Were Fun When You Were Young (But Hurt Now That You’re Old)?  (Instead, I wrote The Book.)

I meant to delve into the history of those activities and compare how it feels to do them as a child with how it feels as an adult fraught with a physical intolerance for vertiginous puking agents and bug bites, ground sleeping, and immobility.  Give me songs around the campfire, then drive me back to the hotel.

I’m thinking about fun now because I’ve had my fill of it this weekend.  Friday night, I went with a friend to see Boister, a local band with national proportions, at the Wind Up Space, a comfortable venue on North Avenue.  The place was filled friends: former, old, new, Facebook, ex-, ex-Facebook, wanna-be, and wanna-be-ex friends.  My husband was asleep at 9:30 p.m., when I left.  So I told him the next morning that I’d had fun

“Fun?  What’s fun?” Marty wanted to know.  “What’s fun about watching a band and drinking?”  His argument was that I might have had a good time, but enjoyment didn’t make for the wild, childlike abandon of fun.

But I disagree.  Friday night, I smiled endlessly.  I flirted with friends.  I hugged.  I talked and laughed.  And damn it, I even danced (or, rather, moved in a pre-dancelike fashion).  It felt more heady than enjoyment to me.  It felt let’s-do-this-again good.  And what makes it fun instead of enjoyment could be this: for nearly three hours, I didn’t think about my father being dead or the things I needed to do the next day. 

I forgot the woes of life and felt only the joys.  So playing Scrabble with my mom is enjoyable.  Seeing Chuck Prophet is fun.  Having coffee with my friends on Friday mornings is enjoyable.  Riding a rollercoaster is fun.  And sex is both—enjoyable for most of it, fun for seven point three seconds.

At lunchtime yesterday, my cousin in Delaware sent an email that she was thinking of popping over to say hi one day; would that be a problem?  Were we averse to people popping in?  Nuh-uh.  But if she came now, I was cooking chili; I’d just make more, and we’d make it an early dinner.  My sister had a ticket to see Linkin Park, but she canceled those plans to come. 

Marty went shopping for bread and corn; I cooked a gargantuan crock pot full of chili; he made super-size salad; Serena-rella scrubbed the toilets.  We straightened up.  I set up a mini-PA in the living room, and we took breaks for singing and playing.  At 4:00, my cousin and her husband and their three children (6, 4, and 3), and my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nephews (5 and 13) invaded our house.  The kids ran around screaming and touching things, and I took 200 pictures of them doing it.  We talked, sang, ate food, and drank growlers of hoppy local-to-Delaware ale.  Music happened in every room in the house, and nearly everyone contributed. 

We sang for hours.  We sang “Hallelujah” in four-part harmony (sometimes).  Serena sang and I sang and Stacey and Beth sang and the kids sang in the microphone with the harmonizer on.

When they finally left just before 8, the house was already straightened up, and we were exhausted—asleep by 10.  This morning, we talked about how tired we were to have passed out so early.  “That was a lot of work!” Marty said. 

And then he added: “But it was really fun.”

By all accounts and definitions, all that cooking and cleaning, all the kids running around, compounded six-fold by the fact that we’re all related, shouldn’t even have placed this event on the enjoyment scale.  Add the household chores that faced us at every turn, and there wasn’t even any forgetting involved.

So what makes something fun?  It must be your own active participation, with a little bit of joyful noise.  Fun is some kind of boister in your soul.

Monday, July 9, 2012

eulogy for my father

I just took this photo for him in the window of a law firm
in Hampden because he had everything.  It became a
challenge to shop for him, so we started making sleep
shirts with pictures of the kids on them.  They were his
favorite gifts ever—and he wore them all the time. 
 My dad could fall asleep anywhere.

What is important to remember about my dad is the taste of grilled crustless bologna sandwiches.  He cooked few things, but he was a whiz with an aluminum pie and sandwich cooker.

It is important to remember playing cards with him—Pitch was our favorite.  He coined the term "card off!"  If he accidentally threw the wrong card from his hand, a timely "card off!" would allow him to correct his mistake. I still say card off when I need a do-over.  I say it now, for the last year of our lives.  Card off.

It was important to know my father.  He was a connector; he knew everybody.  I first learned of this when I was eight, and he almost  got our family on the set of The Courtship of Eddie's Father.  And then again when, at eleven, he almost got me a lunch date with David Cassidy because he knew the teen idol's manager.  He knew a record promoter and brought me home a stack of New Wave albums—The Cars, Blondie, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello—before there was even a new wave.  I remember he thought Elvis would have less-than-zero longevity, like Elton John.

Here's generosity for you: a family cruise to Bermuda,
everything paid, including kids' face painting and
off-ship meals and a few souvenirs.
If you needed a back doctor, knowing him could get you a faster appointment.  He could get you a last-minute reservation or a special deal on a car or just some extra nice treatment somewhere.  There's a waiter at the Prime Rib who used to fawn all over my husband Marty when we came to the restaurant.  It took me years to figure out that it wasn't Marty who was so special; it was my father.  The waiter had assumed Marty, also Mr. Miller, was his son, so when he asked, "How's your dad?" I said, "I'M Harvey's daughter."  He sucked up to me from then on.

When Beth and I were kids, Dad's sales jobs often took him on the road, but even when he wasn't away, he worked all the time.  To make up for it, he gave us lots of stuff—TVs and telephones and stereos in our bedrooms, crazy bowling-ball shaped radios, radios you wore on your wrist, fancy souvenirs from his travels, and even a new car when I got my license.  I thought we were rich.

Even in the hospital, my dad would work, though
each successive hospital visit would make that less possible.
When he became successful in his business, he became more generous.  You couldn't go anywhere without him saying, "You want it? I'll buy it."  If you would so much as touch the fabric of a pair of $300 jeans, he'd say it.  "You want it I'll buy it."  But who needed a pair of $300 jeans?  There's a shop owner in Rehoboth who loves him but hates his crazy ass family.

My dad was, at times, too generous, insisting, when I was pregnant, on replacing my paid-off Honda Civic with a Nissan Pathfinder, so his grandchild could travel in the manner befitting a grandchild of his.  I said no a lot, but the arguments would wear me down. 

In fact, I spent a therapy session learning to cope with my father's generosity. How come I couldn't figure out on my own what my therapist said in an instant: This is how your dad gives love.  And every time you say no, you reject it.  So shut up, and get some new clothes."  From then on, I touched fabric more discriminately—and only that of sensible things or stuff I really needed.

Panic:  How is it that the most recent
photo I have of myself with my father
was taken 18 years ago at my wedding?
So I think of sandwiches and games and generosity when I think of my dad.  And I think of love.  He loved fiercely and loyally.  And if something was wrong, he wanted to fix it for you.  He hated seeing the people he loved struggle or suffer for a moment without something they needed or wanted. 

The people he loved became members of his family, and they included the people we loved: my sister's, my mother's, and my best friends, who came on vacation with us, out to dinner for our birthdays and sometimes even for theirs.  They included my husband long before he was my husband, when he was just the naked boyfriend passing him in the hallway after midnight on the way to the bathroom.  He adopted Steve, one of his employees.  He adopted André, the guy who delivered his home oxygen and detailed his car.  He and his business partner, Tom, adopted each other. 

It was so easy to love my dad because he loved so easily.  And the best benefit of losing someone like that is that you never have to wonder if you loved enough or well.  You did.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Daily beer aside, I’m not much of a drinker anymore.  My goals as a grownup are different; I drink ale because it tastes good, not because it makes me tipsy.  But in the past few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate (rather than, I should make clear, depend upon) its analgesic effects.

On Saturday night, I’d had an emergency shiatsu treatment at the place I affectionately call Jim Hill’s House of Hellishly Painful Poking and Pulling.  That’s exactly where I go; that’s exactly what goes on.  But the whole way home from treatment, I was thinking of booze.

I wasn’t in the mood for what usually ales me.  I wanted a Baileys and club soda.  No, I wanted a frozen mudslide.  No, I wanted gin and tonic.  I would go to The Liquor Pump, because I could also get a hug—free.  I would get Kahlua, Baileys , and a six pack.

The Liquor Pump had no power, like most of the places near Old Harford Road.  But Lou’s was open, so I picked up my liqueurs and paid the man (whose name I don’t know despite having shopped there for 19 years) through the carousel in the bullet-proof glass.  It was a hug-less, joyless purchase.

We didn’t have vodka or gin at home, so today, after another shiatsu treatment just four days later, I stopped at the Liquor Pump for more booze and that hug.  While I was picking out the vodka, there he was, arms outstretched.  Worth the price.

I took my selections—including cake vodka for my mom’s birthday—to the counter and went in search of some gin.  What do I know from gin—Tanqueray seems to be the thang.  But I saw as a sign the bottle of Martin Miller; even at $35, it had to come home with me.

When I put it on the counter, Harry seemed impressed with my taste. “That’s the best gin you can buy.  It’s the only one that doesn’t have an overwhelming flavor of juniper.  I mean, you can taste it, but it’s not overpowering.” 

“Well,” I hated to admit, “I picked this one because my husband is Martin Miller.”

“You have a husband?” Harry asked, faux dejection in his voice.

"Yeah," I said.  "But don't you have a wife and kids?"

“Sure,” he said, “But I can have lots of wives.”

I suppose if I could have lots of husbands (though why anyone would want lots of either is beyond my capacity for reason), I could do far worse than a handsome fellah who owns a liquor store.

But I’m better off sticking with the one I have.  Diet tonic and a squirt of lemon, please.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


I wake up every morning, and I say, “Ugh.”  Sometimes it’s “Uck.”  Sometimes it’s “Fuck,” truth be told.  I don’t wake up much these days with a song in my heart, unless it’s a melody-less song with ugh and uck and fuck in it.
Last Monday, my dad took a fall and wound up in the cardiac care unit.  He’d had a heart attack, but it wasn’t the typical exertion-related kind, and there’s no—according to today’s heart catheter procedure—blocked anything. 

For nearly a decade, he’s had aortic stenosis.  The aortic valve becomes calcified, narrowing, and it causes a backup of blood, resulting in very low blood pressure and heart episodes like these.  Eventually, the dopamine drip will no longer work to keep his blood pressure up to 85/69.  But if he can’t get off the med, he can’t go home.

During his heart cath procedure, the doctor discovered that more of his aorta is calcified, so he’ll need a CT scan to determine whether it’s operable.  If he passes that test, he’ll need to fail the next one.  Two heart surgeons will need to agree that he’s not a candidate for open-chest surgery due to his limited lung capacity (he has COPD and asthma).  If that goes well, he could have a percutaneous valve replacement, which is a brand new (like—yesterday) treatment.  It wasn’t available before his chemo began, or it’s likely that he’d have had one of those years ago—possibly avoiding all these extra trips to the hospital to bring up his blood pressure.

That’s Dad.  Me?  Well, I am due for my six-month CT scan to see if the cancerous nodes in my stomach have grown.  If you were to look at my actual stomach, you’d think they’d grown the size of a watermelon, because it’s clear I have a giant squash growing there.  At the same time, I’m ditching my oncologist because, after making me wait an hour to see him, he spends my visits with his back to me, asking me questions, typing the answers on his laptop, and addressing the multiple laptop crashes.   Then he turns to face me, pokes my stomach and underarms, and sends me off.  I need a little more bedside manner.  A little more face time.  A little less technology.

One year ago in August, I started to get some bad leg and back pain, so I went to see my back surgeon.  He looked at my MRI and said I needed two fusions.  I fretted.  I told him I really didn’t want another back surgery, and, as I was still talking, asking him what else I could possibly do, he was getting up and walking out of the room, telling me to call him when I was ready for surgery.  So I ditched him, too.  When I told my second-opinion doctor the story, he said, “Did he really do that?” but it didn’t sound like a question.  Unfortunately, he agreed that I needed two fusions.  The issue that took me to see the back doctor in the first place—some nerve damage and leg pain—has returned with ferocity.  Back surgery looks imminent.  Hooray.

Dad and I are both feeling a little overwhelmed.  We’re a little depressed.  We cry.  We wake up and say, “Ugh.”  If will were the only thing we had, we probably wouldn’t wake up.

Sometimes the pain isn’t worth it.  Sometimes the scenery just ain’t so good when your bed is facing the hallway and not the window, and you don’t know if it’s day or night, and the beeping is incessant and not even in time with the seconds so that you can precisely count the minutes of lying there, and the only thing good you have is the pure oxygen streaming from the cannula.  But even that loses its sexiness after a few days, especially without a companion opiate.

But I’m not 75 and in the hospital.  My scenery has a gorgeous, talented daughter in it, some sweet dogs, a good husband, so many friends, a comfortable home, and a good job, where people appreciate me—and tell me so. 

I’m not ready to stop looking.  At least not until I stop writing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

social disease

On June 28, 2011, one year ago today, my dad was diagnosed with large cell B lymphoma.  It was just two weeks after I was diagnosed with small cell B lymphoma, a less aggressive form of cancer.

Unlike me, my dad needed treatment right away—tumor removal and chemotherapy.  I was instructed to "wait and worry."  And that's still what I do, one year later.

Since last fall, after Dad's third chemo treatment, he has gotten sicker and sicker.  He has had so many visits to the ER that I think he has been more in the hospital than out since Halloween. 

Now I'm not a denial kind of person.  I do things deliberately, consciously.  But with every new development of my father's myriad conditions—bleeding ulcer, sepsis, pneumonia, pseudomonas, aortic stenosis—I go to a place of obliteration, denial, debauchery.  I see in him my future, whether that's rational or not.   It's fairly easy to go to that place.  In fact, after his first serious incident, when he was barely still alive and hardly able to talk, Dad said to me, "Don't worry.  This won't happen to you."  It was probably one of his last truly lucid, unselfconscious moments. 

But Dad is a salesman.  I am used to the games he has played.  And I have learned that honesty, no matter how sincere my dad appeared, was never his actual policy.  Love was.  Hope was. 

With each of his trips to the hospital, I became more social—going to bars, concerts, clubs, friends' houses.  I upped my daily beer to two sometimes.

My dad fell on Monday night and wound up back in the hospital.  I had company Tuesday night and went out with friends last night and tonight.  One year after his diagnosis, we are now discussing how to treat the heart attack that, apparently, caused his fall.   

I suppose we all deal with these things in our own ways, and who can say one way is  proper.  Should I lie around crying?  Rest assured I do plenty of that. 

In winter of 2008, I had back surgery.  The slow recovery and medications and lack of sunlight and exercise created a suicide incubator.  The night I broke my tooth (trying to force myself to eat something) had me plotting my own death: by motorcycle exhaust in the leaky garage. 

Maybe this method of social stress release is smart.  Maybe the constant reminders of friendship and laughter and the great taste of food and ale are how I keep from getting swallowed again by the darkest thoughts I've ever had.

So—who's up for bowling?  

Monday, June 25, 2012

no balloons

My husband’s aunt is 85, and she was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  It’s late—the cancer, the time, the life.  But the life is precious; they are all precious. 

We visited her on a Wednesday night, just after she’d had a reaction to one of her medications.  It left her stranded beneath herself, somewhere between sleep and panic.  It was temporary.  Did she know?

I sat on the chair beside her, and she reached for me, squeezing my hand. When she fell asleep, I took my hand back, and she awoke again and held both arms out toward me.  I hugged her.  When she fell back to sleep, I got up and surveyed the room.

On the guest’s sofa, far too small for anyone to sleep (though a daughter or granddaughter slept there every night), were magazines and candy bars and assorted toiletries.  In the corner of the ceiling, seven foil balloons, adorned with cheer and imploring Margaret to GET WELL SOON, floated.

1.  Don’t buy me balloons.

I started a list that moment.  No balloons.  These are for children having their tonsils out.  Anyone who brings me a balloon while I am being treated for or recovering from whatever ails me enough that I am in a hospital will be strangulated with their cheerful pastel ribbons. Am I giving too much weight to these helium-filled mood lifters? 

2.  Tell me over and over and over again the truth about my condition.

Make sure you know I understand.  I will squeeze your hand once for yes.   

3.  Ask me lots of yes questions.

“Do you understand?”  Yes.  “Do you want a pizza?”  Yes.   “Should Chuck Prophet come sing at your bedside?”  Yes. Yes. Yes.

4.  If I am never going to get well, get me out.

Don’t let me die in a hospital.  Take me home, and get my daughter to play me out.

I need a longer list: rules about hygiene (mine and yours); lasts—last food, last beer, last song; quality of life stuff. 

Do you think about these things, too?  Does your mind go there when you are beside a loved one’s hospital bed?  Do you look at her gray skin, then at the perky balloons on the ceiling and feel a little bit of rage?

My back hurts. I feel the impending doom of a two-disc fusion.  I worry about the CT scan that checks the progression of my lymphoma.  I fear the fear.  At work, I take a pill and try to put all my black thoughts into a bubble, float that bubble up toward the ceiling. 

But the bubble hits the built-in sprinkler and pops.  Words fall out—on my head, my shoulders, my desk.  I build them into poems. And directives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

750 choice words about my feelings for the Beatles

I do not like them in a car. I do not like them in a bar. I do not like them in my yard, in a singing card, in a concert hall—or on my Facebook wall.

I do not like the Beatles.  I do not like them.

If you are alive and American or English, you probably know this band—a.k.a. The Fab Four. You may have credited them with the invention of pop music, of four-part harmony, of heavy metal, of MTV, and of, well, everything!

The Beatles are the best band ever, and here’s why: They are popular. They have sold over a billion records and have the most top albums and singles and number one hits and successful songs, and they wrote their own songs and used all kinds of crazy instruments (dude, a sitar! a mellotron!) and were on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were fucking popular, damn it!

And 42 years after they disbanded, they’re still fucking popular, damn it. From 1962 to 1970, they released about 24 albums and about 213 songs. Prolific popular motherfuckers. With all that going for them, why don’t I like them?

1. Their lyrics, for the most part, suck.
“Because the wind is high / it blows my mind” “And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain” “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh” “Here comes the sun / and I say / It’s all right” “Baby, you can drive my car / yes I’m gonna be a star”
In general, I want more from my lyrics, though I don’t always need more. Bands like Led Zeppelin, who overflow in a bunch of categories, can be forgiven for things like “The Lemon Song.” Of course, there are exceptions, like "Let it Be."

2. They have no tasty guitar solos.

The only Beatles song that has one of those (and it ain’t all that) is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and non-Beatle Eric Clapton played it. Fans will argue that guitar solos are not what the Beatles were about. Yes. And I don’t like that about them.

3. There’s no edge, no emotional conflict, no real passion.

The Beatles are suits. They had some longish hair, and that’s swell. But they are buttoned up and sound buttoned up. Again, not what the Beatles are about—and another reason I just don’t like them—in a car, in a bar, or in my room while I groom. Of course, there are exceptions, like “I Want You/She’s So Heavy.”

4. They’re not my cup of tea.

I like coffee, not tea. And it really comes down to taste and preference. Do tea drinkers dress better, think better, love better? It’s not about better. I like George Clooney, but I don’t like Brad Pitt. I take the cake but leave the pie. I like gerber daisies but don’t care for roses. It’s really as simple as that.

I have never, ever said, “I’m in the mood to hear some Beatles right now.” I’ve never put on an album. I have, however, turned them off. Some of the best Beatles songs I’ve ever heard are covers of Beatles songs, and I still don’t like them all that much.

My husband doesn’t care for the Beatles. My best friend doesn’t care for the Beatles.

I do love your passion. It might rival my passion for a hoppy, snappy IPA. What I don’t love, though, is your righteous indignation. What’s it to you? I hold no stock in Brewer’s Art or Rogue or Flying Dog, so if you’re drinking wine instead or, worse, Coors Lite, what’s it to me? Will I look at you funny? Maybe. Will it keep me from being your friend? Nope. I’m sure we can agree on a few other things. (Everybody loves Bruce Springsteen, right? WHAT?!?!?)

If you dislike my favorite bands (Chuck Prophet, Marah, the Black Keys, the Kills, Cheap Trick, Pink Floyd) or my kind of beer (Resurrection, Dead Guy), you won’t find me posting links to them on your Facebook wall or heatedly extolling their virtues. As I like to say: more for me. I won’t have to worry about fighting you for the last concert ticket or six pack.

I hate the Beatles. I do not like them in my ears. Or even after several beers.  And my last thoughts on this matter are whispered words of wisdom: "Let it be."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

the new "about me" section

I have always liked to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order.  You can apply that to art—mosaics, poetry, music—and life.  I rearrange the physical and metaphorical furniture of my life not just whenever necessary but  whenever possible.

It’s never been more true than now.  Every inhalation I take these days is a subconscious meditation on having cancer and turning fifty, and every exhalation is a breathy profession of my goals.  They are so simplistic that they can be summed up with a trite Bob Schneider lyric from "Captain Kirk":  “I just wanna feel good / I don’t wanna hurt nobody / I just wanna get a good time / out of my life.”

To that end:

·      I am funny, and I laugh all the time—even at my own crude jokes.

·      I keep your secrets.  I used to have no secrets of my own but am now working on generating a few.  Please return the favor and keep them.

·      I indulge my addictions.  All addicts say they can live without [objects of addiction]; they simply choose not to.  That’s the addiction talking, of course.  My addiction chooses to drink a beer (sometimes two) just about every day.  Until it interferes with work or life, 6:00 is Resurrection time.

fun at our last middle school PTA meeting
·      I am honest.  I ask for what I want, and I say what I mean.  I won’t waste another minute wondering what if.  If I want to know, I ask.

·      I am a poet.  There’s a beautiful and precise way to talk about anything. 

Lest you think this post is all about me, rest assured it’s all about you.  Even if you’re not turning 50, even if you don’t have a serious illness:

·      be funny; laugh all the time
·      keep people’s secrets, and generate some of your own to entrust with others
·      indulge an addiction that does no harm
·      ask for what you want; tell people how you feel
·      find poetry everywhere—a flower, a peach, an old salmon-colored Danelectro guitar with a moldy case, pickles, your friends.

And eat a salad and get some exercise, too, damn it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Senior Citizens Ball

“We all wanna be big stars / but we don’t know why / and we don’t know how” —Counting Crows, "Mr. Jones"
British Invasion, February 2009
Last night, I attended the Senior Citizens Ball. The place was full of rockers. It was a bittersweet celebration, because the honorees would soon be gone. This was the last seasonal performance of thirteen graduating seniors of the Baltimore School of Rock.

We joined SoR because I was working on a book proposal—something about how you can be a rockstar at any age. (Because who didn’t dream of being a star something at one time? And who doesn’t have a midlife crisis and a spare ten grand to attend a fantasy camp to address it?)

Serena was ten and learning how to play guitar, so I dragged her to the 8x10 for the SoR’s tribute to David Bowie. She was reluctant but, by the end of the night, convinced. She’d go for a season to help out her mom. 

Show Team, Jr. Hunt Cup, April 2012
Four years and nearly 20 shows later, Serena is on the School of Rock’s Show Team and is about to start her sax-ademic career at the Baltimore School for the Arts. She is a confident, well-adjusted, creative, smart, nice girl. She’s a leader and a team player. Of course, I can credit her ultra-hip, uber-great parents. I can credit her education. I can credit her community—friends, family, relationships, neighborhood. But a good chunk of it goes to the School of Rock, who influences her for upwards of ten hours a week.

Awesome Ted Merrill, Graduate
In the last four years, we’ve seen some pretty average kids come through SoR’s doors. But we have seen so many of them turn into remarkable kids with extraordinary talent. They work hard. They play harder. But you know what else? Most of them are nice. Really nice. They are kind to us. They are respectful. They are good to my daughter.

Nice doesn’t get nearly enough credit. But think about it: Are you rooting for the nasty brat to get a Grammy? Should The Voice belong to a bitch? Should the American Idol be a back stabber? We have enough of those.

My agent and a few of my friends have always been a little suspicious of this cult that is the School of Rock. How rock and roll is it, they want to know, to have your parents pay for lessons (as if there were another way to get them)? How cool is it to play a club in front of your family and friends?

Phenomenal Ian Viera, Graduate
Cooler than singing into a hairbrush. Cooler than playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Cooler than being good at Rock Band. Even cooler than teaching yourself to play electric guitar in your bedroom. 

Nothing’s perfect, but it’s hard to argue with these results. Last night, thirteen kids played 22 songs, tunes from bands as diverse as Incubus and Rhianna, My Morning Jacket and Stevie Wonder, Toto and the Black Keys. They were as good as any professional rock band you’ve ever seen. (One of the best of these kids deserves his own shoutout: Ian Viera, the only drummer graduating, played every song, and if he wasn’t perfect, only he knew.)

Brilliant Jack Averill, Graduate
Janet Decker, Mom and SoR Director 
Between songs, some of the kids spoke of their experiences at SoR. You can guess what they said: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without the School of Rock.” “Thanks to my parents for paying and for driving me to the School of Rock.” “Thanks to the School of Rock teachers for inspiring us to be our best.”

A friend asked Janet Decker, the school’s director, which kid was hers. “All of them,” she said. And she wasn’t exaggerating. They’re my kids, too. And I am proud of every single one of them.

So congratulations to my kids: Jack Averill, Lindsay Baer, Evan Cooper, Will Fedder, Jordan Lagana, Meghan Malenski, Ted Merrill, Imari Miller, Caroline Myers, Andrew Potthast, Ian Viera, Nick Vogt, and Max Yates. And while we tend toward the figurative use of this phrase, I can say it here literally: You all rock.

And thank you, not just for the entertainment but for being such good people. That puts you way ahead of the crowd.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


By the time I kissed someone I liked, I was good at it. Pillows, posters of Peter Frampton, record albums with David Cassidy on their covers don’t kiss back, but you can press your lips against them with force or gentleness. You can make your mouth a powerhouse. Kiss your forearm, though, and you can imagine the give of another’s lips. Practice that. Kissing feels as good as being kissed. This is both.

This week, Rob Brezsny’s spiritual advice to those born under the sign of ADD (Libra, if you didn’t know) is to embrace quality over quantity. Sometimes—with the exception of having babies and infections—quality emerges from quantity.


Practice isn’t a devil. It’s what separates the good from the great. I don’t need to prove anything, don't write about studies and such, but if I did, I would point to a particular book about what separates world-class performers from everybody else.

To become a better musician—whether you have natural talent or not—you work at it, and that means finding the time to practice. And practicing means doing. You play. You repeat the same song over and over until your wife or daughter or mother or dog wants to strangle you with your guitar strap or whack you on the head with the microphone.

If you’re a photographer, you take more pictures. You pose your dog, your daughter. You fidget with the lighting, her hair, his one floppy ear, the backdrop. You take the same picture 47 times until it’s exactly the picture you saw before you began.

Why do doctors practice medicine? Why do lawyers practice law?

If you’re a writer like I am, you write more: a story, a letter, a poem, sentences. You edit the words. You massage them. You fuck with them until they are sore and tired and smoking beside you on the bed.

On April 1st, because it was the start of National Poetry Month, I started practicing poetry again. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought like a poet for any length of time. I write nonfiction and advertising—in both my day work and my freelance life. The first can be poetic, but it doesn’t teach economy. The second is economical, but it’s rarely poetic.

Poems are not stories with random or even planned line breaks. They aren’t born like babies (though they are sometimes emotionally painful)—all perfect, if a little wet and icky. They would need more than to be cleaned up: chiseled, sculpted, molded, rearranged, cut, dissected, tortured. Even my happiest poems need to ache a little.

For the last ten days, I’ve written about a poem a day. I share them on Facebook but not publicly, in case there’s a chance I can torture them into a publishing opportunity. But it’s not, as some have surmised, about quantity. It’s about practice and discipline and the hard work of thinking in precise, power-packed words. They’re like astronaut food. They’re like the little sponges before they take on water and become bathtub dinosaurs.

The words I use in poems need to combine to form a drug. You need to blister a little while you read it. The last line should give you some euphoria. Or some despair. I want you to wonder when the next one will arrive. No, to crave it.

We don’t need to be the best at what we do. But we should always want to be better at doing it.

I never did kiss the real Peter Frampton or the real David Cassidy. I’m still practicing, but I think I’m ready.

- - - - -

("Kissback Bob" CD manipulation by Steve Parke)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

drug of voice

Long ago, when I was crazy and couldn't sleep, my shrink, knowing of my life before baby, told me I needed to start writing poetry again or join a band. He believed insomnia to be a symptom of art withdrawal.

He was right. I had chosen the poetry, and my sleep was restored. I'd have started a band, too, except that I have crippling stage fright.

Back when I fronted Question 47 in the early eighties, we played out once or twice a week. I eased my fears with a gin and tonic or two, and I was usually comfortable by the third song. But I know alcohol only makes you think you sing great. Still, I pine for that unrequited love. I would rather sing and play guitar than do much else, even though I probably have no business doing it at all.

So here's what happens to me when I get on stage—even to read poetry or give a lecture: My arms get heavy and numb, and they sting, as though the blood in my veins were plaster of Paris mixed with rubbing alcohol; my legs stiffen and cramp; my heart pounds out of my chest, and you can see it through my shirt like some kind of alien spawn; my voice shakes and quavers, and I can't stay in pitch.

Because of my fear and lack of confidence, with the exception of one brief embarrassing moment at my daughter's bat mitzvah last year, I've not sung in public since my old band days. Until Friday.

After a story on 60 Minutes awhile ago, I wondered about using Propranolol (Inderol), a beta blocker, to ease my stage fright. I mentioned it recently, and my best friend, a speech pathologist, admitted that she takes it when she has to give presentations. So I called my doctor. He gave me five tiny pills and the instruction to take half a pill one or two hours before my performance. Our school's coffee house was 6-9; I took half a pill at 5.

At 8:15, my friend's band announced that they were taking a break and asked if I wanted to play. I'd pretty much given up on that idea. But when Dave asked me again, I was up like a shot. If I was nervous for a moment, it's a moment I don't remember.

And it's the only thing I don't remember. The pill gave me some kind of super memory! I didn't forget the chords or the words, even though we were playing a new song. And when someone asked us to play another, I did an original.

I'm not saying I was great; I wasn't. But I didn't suck, either, and that was enough to delight me. Maybe after a few of these little shows, my confidence can return.

I have enough pills for nine more gigs. And I plan to use them all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

the poet

On Sunday, I had breakfast with a poet. A real poet. He didn't have breakfast with me because he'd had some "Irish soda bread" at home on his horse farm before our late morning meeting.

Real poets have Irish soda bread on their kitchen counters on their horse farms.

Last time I met the poet in this place, I helped him set up a Facebook page. Now, his canonical status updates read like a taunt.

In this order: Up at five but it felt like four. Iced hooves. Thought about meditation. Thought better. Remembered Ackerman (Come to Bed Jack), her eyes. Listened to Mundy, Garbage, R. Head. Reread Paul Hostovsky's "A Little in Love a Lot" for the twentieth time. Found something I'd missed.

My update: Beer is fucking delicious. Beer is like crack. Fucking crack.

Nearly every poem he writes punches me in the gut. Across the table, the poet tosses me three pages. On the first is a poem about shooting a raccoon and putting up Christmas decorations. It is so perfect that I need to find a quiet place to both punish and forgive myself.

Sometimes I punch back. And sometimes, the poet flinches. Last week, I sent him two new pieces—one the lushest, most violent, aching, throbbing poem. He sent them back from South Bumfuck. In an envelope. With stamps. Like only poets and poetry-loving husbands do. I ran to the mailbox each day like a puppy, and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I begged him to send his comments by email so I could set my poem free.

That day, the longhand-edited pieced arrived—with an entirely different critique. He told me on the better page: "This one is a great poem." It’s covered in cursive and printing, three different colors and weights of ink: a fine-point black pen; a medium-point black pen; and a cyan marker, which is his commentary.

In one week, the poet will turn 50. He'll go out to dinner with his wife. They'll talk about horses and poetry and wine. When it's my turn, six months from now, I will scratch 50 until it bleeds. And I will drink the delicious crack of Resurrection. I will wake up the next day and be exactly the same, but I will pretend that it made all the difference in the world.

The list of things to do between now and the next rotation around the sun grows: publish another book of poems (the first one's due out in May), form a band that plays originals and wholly original covers, travel somewhere by myself, go to Barcelona to see the mosaics.

The poet has lived in Barcelona and describes standing in Picasso’s house like only a poet can describe it.

And because I, too, am a poet, I am, in that moment, there.