Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Tree—or Why the Jewish Girls Should Handle the Decorations

Every year, we hem and haw over whether we’re getting a Christmas tree: the expense, the work, the time, the mess—it’s all a hassle. Yet every year, we get The Tree. It’s always $65, and it’s always the same amount of work.

I move the furniture, I ride along to make sure we choose the best tree, I screw the stand into the stump, I bring the lights and ornaments down from the attic, I string the lights, I put the ornaments on the tree with a little help from my daughter until she becomes bored.  When I grow sick of The Tree and the space it commands in front of the window, I bring down the ornament boxes, put the ornaments away, take down the lights and roll them up carefully, haul all the decorative Christmas crap back to the attic and store it neatly under the eaves, drag the tree out to the lawn, sweep the needles, and move all the furniture back to its comfortable place.

My husband’s job couldn’t be simpler: take the tree out of the truck, bring it into the house, and put it in the stand. Sometimes: saw a few inches off the bottom. Sometimes: straighten the tree so I can re-screw it.

But Marty feels he has another important job, which has necessitated the annual tradition known as Tree Begging. It begins the day after Thanksgiving with a discussion of whether and when we’ll get The Tree. My Jewish daughter and I want it right away. My husband, who grew up with Christmas trees, doesn’t want it at all. Every day, we see if that’s the day we can get The Tree. Because it’s going to happen, and it’s going to cost $65.

This year, that day was the Sunday before Christmas.

Our next annual tradition is the discussion about where we’ll buy The Tree. It’s always Walther Gardens, six-tenths of a mile from our house. My husband argues that it’s too expensive, that we should go to that one place on Loch Raven with the $20.99 “Tree’s.” I argue that spending money in our own neighborhood benefits us and supports good spelling.

With only six trees remaining on the Walther Gardens lot, choosing The Tree was easy. We took the $65 one.

This year, Marty didn’t have to saw the stump. But since my back hurt from moving all the furniture, I asked my husband to take over the lights. It had been awhile since he had shown any tree-decorating initiative. 

First, he made himself a drink of absinthe, a Christmas gift from me, which he sipped slowly while watching videos of his daughter on YouTube while I made Fuquinay Gnog.

Then Marty fixed his second absinthe cocktail and set about the important work of wrapping the tree with lights, taking care to tuck the strands into the tree and weave the branches in and out where necessary, creating a uniform and glorious display of random flashes of color and beauty.  After he began, I peeked out from the kitchen to check on his progress. I clicked my tongue a few times and sighed heavily and paced, returning to the kitchen. Every time I interrupted, he asked whether I wanted to do it myself, and I did not. I didn’t. I did not want to do it myself. So I sat at the table playing Candy Crush Saga and did not look until he was finished.

The absinthe, it seemed, worked.  Because my husband was obviously hallucinating. The green strands of light cord were sticking out at all angles, with drunken loops like elf jump ropes. Lights were strung vertically. VERTICALLY!

I suddenly recalled why my husband was relegated to taking the tree out of the truck, bringing it into the house, and putting it in the stand. Sometimes sawing a few inches off the bottom. Sometimes straightening the tree so I can re-screw it.

The Jewish women of the house hurled insults at him like so many balls, deriding his work—both ethic and product. And when he left to walk the dogs, we de-lighted The Tree.  Serena and I unwrapped the six strands of lights my husband had just installed, cussing and shaking our heads with disgust over the tasteless display.

Our Christmas tree is now festively—and tastefully—adorned. A Hungarian tapestry is our tree skirt, and the gifts I wrapped in sparkly paper wait below to be torn open.  (The presents I ordered for myself from my husband—I got me two photo backdrops and a stand from him—sit unwrapped.)

Tonight, if all goes as it usually does, Marty will come back from a last-minute emergency trip to the drugstore and, when I am not looking, drip large, silver clumps of that tacky tinsel all over my work. That my daughter is his co-conspirator is largely how I know she is his.

By the 26th, I'll be ready to chuck The Tree out on the lawn, but I'll let it stay until January 1st. And from that moment on, I'll look forward to doing it all again next year.

Happy Holidays to you and yours. And by that I mean Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May you get everything you need but only a few of the things you want. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

the ABCs of gratitude: a thank-you note to my life

What follows is an incomplete and sometimes incoherent list of things I'm grateful for right now, in my post-eggnog cheesecake stupor.

Art—Paintings, sculpture, architecture, design, photography, music, theater, poetry: I can't live without them. Even camping in the woods wouldn't be tolerable without some art in it—reading or writing a poem, snapping a photo of sunset at Lava Point. I value the artist above all to make up for his devaluation every day, especially now that online content is stolen.The teacher and the doctor and the scientist and mathematician and speech pathologist and plumber are all important, and they're told every day that someone pays them with real money instead of website traffic or popularity. But we need to recognize that nearly everything we use, do, see, and need has an artist, not necessarily a doctor or a plumber, behind it somewhere. Honorable Mention: Alphabet—Fuckin’ a, fuckin’ b, fuckin’ c, and so on, which allows me to make words and write. 

Baltimore—I owe you a love song, Baltimore. You rock. You cook. You class me up. And you don't care if I wear slippers or curlers to the store, not that I would, but you might have thought those were slippers when in fact they were furry clogs. Your architecture makes our sunsets magnificent. Your trees make our sunrises possible. And your people butter my biscuits. 

Crows—This morning as I write, there's a crow barking outside my window. I could watch the birds for hours, and I have. Thank you, Corvus brachyrhynchos, and your glossy blue-black brethren. 

Dogs—A house without a dog is a quieter and less hairy house, but it's one I don't want. (I'm also thankful for the dog walkers, since I'm not well-built for leash use.)  On the subject of dogs versus cats, let me just say that you never hear about the crazy dog lady. 

Eggnog cheesecake. Honorable Mention: Elastic, necessary due to eggnog cheesecake.

Family, Friends, and the F-word—It’s a three-way tie. You can’t ever have enough of all three, except when you have too much. I couldn't name names because there are just too many, but I'm thinking of six people in particular who have had me in their thoughts more often than I deserve. I'll leave you to wonder. (If you think it's you, it might be, but only half of them would even think it was.)

Guitar, Guild GAD 30—Next to the saxomophone, it’s my favorite instrument, and I’m so lucky that I get to live in a house full of guitar players. That everyone plays so much better than I do is the best part. I am serenaded even when I don’t want to be, and that’s rare. I just wish they'd all play the Taylor instead.

Home—I have a house. The windows leak, so it's cold upstairs. The bathroom toilet doesn't flush unless you hold the handle for ten seconds. The kitchen floor is cracked, and the cabinets are water damaged; the sink is rusting around the countertop, whose veneer is unglued. My house is small, but it is home. It's made of stone and brick, and it’s topped with slate. And nearly everything I could want or need is inside. Behind a painting in the kitchen are the marks of Serena's height since she could stand.

I—That's right. I'm thankful for me.  I'm brave. I have nice hair. I work hard. And I never pretend to be someone I'm not. I yam what I yam, you dig?

Job—I have a job. And though I wish it were closer to my home and less hard on my soul, I’m no fool. I have one, and it keeps me in all the material things above and below the J, and it makes the non-material things a little easier. I have gripes. But I have gratitude, too, and they can coexist.

Kitchen—It's served me well, mostly, for 20 years. For the last 16, our kitchen table has been the place we come together to talk and watch the news. We have dinner together almost every night. But more than a place to eat, the kitchen is really the living room. Our friends visit and play music in it (the acoustics are nice because of the tile floor), drink a beer, eat cake. We do our homework there. I wrote a whole book there. And as soon as we remodel, I'll be writing another one in that kitchen.

Love. Laughter. Light. Life. Latex. So many L-words to be thankful for.

Music—Even bad music is preferable than no music at all. Well, except this. Honorable Mention: Marty, who risked his life to deep fry a Thanksgiving turkey and who cleaned for three hours after Thanksgiving. He does stuff 365 days a year, and a lot of it is music.

Nikon D600—I don’t ever see fully without it. By the end of the year, I'll have taken 6,000 photos with it. 

Orgasms—They are the dessert of love. If one ever lasted as long as an amusement park ride, you'd probably be dead when it ended.

Pale Ale—this is liquid joy, effervescence, exuberance in a glass.  I could live without it, but why? Honorable Mention: Poetry. I could live without it, but why?

Quilt—There’s a quilt on my bed that’s a little too thin for winter, but I can’t bring myself to replace it with a comforter. I bought it right after my father died. It was the first time he spoke to me since his death. He said, “You want it?  I’ll buy it.” So even though it was my money, he bought it. 

Repartee—I love some clever banter with my very witty friends. Honorable Mention: Rum, which makes others' rejoinders seem even more clever than they are.

Sleep—You take it for granted until you can’t do it anymore. I went through so many years of being unable to fall asleep on my own, and now, every night that I sleep is a day I’m grateful.  Honorable Mention: Sonata—because when I can’t sleep, there’s that. Honorable Mention 2: Shiatsu—because even if it weren't responsible for my continued ability to postpone back surgery, it's two hours a week of complete letting go.  Oh, wait. Did you say S? Serena, of course.

"The Boys are Back in Town," by Thin Lizzy—one of my top five favorite songs of all time got better this year.

Unders/Underwear—You know, the stuff you wear under your clothes. Every time you call them panties, a pervert gets out of jail. Panties are little pants. 

Verbs—They are the hardest working part of speech for a reason.

Werther's Originals (sugar-free!)—I used to think these were candies for old people, but when I turned 50, I discovered how delicious they are.

Xanax—Because everybody needs a little break from my neuroses for a few hours.

You—Are you reading this? Still? You. 

Zicam*—It stops your cold. It makes everything taste like metal, too, which helps you not eat the rest of the eggnog cheesecake.

May the time between now and next year's big dry bird be full of things that make us grateful. That is my wish for mankind.

- - - -

*I feel like Z was anti-climactic. But I'm not that into zebras or zygotes or zithers, and I've never been to Zanzibar. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Death Writer: Monday Mourning: The Death of a Father

Check out my interview here.

The Death Writer: Monday Mourning: The Death of a Father: I like to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. I am the author of the nonfiction book Let Me Eat Cake:...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


My breasts are too big.  Professionals from the age of 11, they skipped their training and went right to the C cup.

When I flash on growing up with my breasts, I remember mostly humiliating things: my piss-yellow gym uniform gaping at the snaps; the obvious size discrepancy between the two as revealed by the green Speedo I wore for swim practice and meets every day of the summer for all my high-school years; being called Moose Miller, after the comic strip, by two boys in the sixth grade who had not learned to like breasts yet—or they had and simply acted as boys in the sixth grade do (which, come to think of it, is not unlike the way many men do). Perhaps my most vivid recollection is standing naked in front of a male plastic surgeon as he took pictures of them during a consultation for a breast reduction that I never had.

From my teen years on, I often slept in a bra when I had my period, and my breasts spent the majority of my pregnant nights in a much larger one.  They are the first body part to gain weight, and they are the last to lose it. 

My sister, my husband, and many of my girlfriends regularly point out their size to me, as if they are separate entities controlled by remote, which I use to inflate or deflate them at will.  Some people, mostly men, talk to them instead of my nice eyes.

Last year's mammogram hurt so much that, despite my having lymphoma and needing to do regular cancer screenings, I postponed this year's mammogram by more than four months. And this one, performed two weeks ago, hurt so much that they still throb from the crushing.

What bothers me most about my breasts—more than ill-fitting tops and now-wrinkled cleavage and soreness and wires poking into my ribcage for thirteen hours a day (even now, as I sit in my bed and compose this sad ode to them)—are the divots in my shoulders, the permanent cuts in my bones.

Nothing, save a fluffy pillow, could have stopped the elastic straps from cutting grooves into my shoulders. Surely not fatter straps, which would have likely caused fatter grooves. I couldn't have chosen no bra or a strapless bra or even a racer back, which would have simply moved the groove closer to my neck.  During the eighties, however, I reduced the discomfort and the cutting effect by placing my shoulder pads under my bra straps.  Alas, shoulder pad style was short lived and never made a comeback—unlike bell bottoms, hip huggers, and tube tops. (That I couldn't wear a tube top is probably the most positive result of my breast size.)

In the summer, my divots are most visible. Though the swimsuit straps should fit nicely into the grooves, where they will stay put and are not subject to sliding down, my breasts are too heavy to stay put.  A length of yarn ties the straps together at the back to hold me up.

Most of the time, no one sees my physical deformity except for my husband, my daughter, and a random friend for whom, when I want sympathy, I will occasionally yank over my shirt and slip down my bra strap. But I can see it.  More important: I can feel it.

Friends joke sometimes when they hear I'm thinking again about a breast reduction. "You can give me what you don't want," one woman says; another replies, "Maybe we can split it!" 

I feel a little like a traitor now, having spent the last 600 words dissing the girls, both of whom have served me well in a few of life's most important arenas.  Despite the abnormalities and the pain and the disfigurement they've caused me over the years, I don't hate them nearly as much as I hate my ankles.

I write about my breasts and my struggles with the consequences of their size because I get a little weary of the insensitive messages sent by deceptive advertisers and well-meaning friends alike. Every day, someone posts a so-called positive, uplifting message about how wonderful our bodies are and how we should love them and not fall prey to Madison Avenue's unachievable lingerie-model standard.

Our feelings about our bodies go far deeper than what we look like in the mirror.  I don't know which is more insulting—the notion that beauty is a size 0 or the impression that I am so shallow that I would reject my body parts because of their appearance alone—or that appearance doesn't also hinder function. 

So I'll say it: I don't love my body.  I sometimes don't like it.  But every day, I stuff parts into fabric contraptions and make the best of what works and what doesn't. And my relationship with those parts is an intimate, personal one (though it's not, now, a private one) influenced by gym teachers and doctors and parents and lovers and children and friends and bullies and disease and books and music and, yes, advertising, because we don't live in a vacuum.

Like America itself, the motto of the body should not be "love it or leave it." It should be "love it or try to make it better."  And that's probably what most of us do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

the work of art

The function of your organs is not dependant upon a Picasso centered above the sofa. You will, indeed, breathe without a bound set of pages filled with well-constructed lines of words about a wheelbarrow and chickens.  Your heart will beat, albeit more slowly and evenly, without having ever heard the greatest rock and roll song of all time—whether that song is Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" or Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or Springsteen's "Born to Run." You certainly don't need movies to make your blood flow.

But try living without art. You can't. I am willing to bet that not a single room in your house, including the bathroom, is devoid of it in some form.

In my small bedroom, I have eight original paintings, a mosaic, a silkscreen, a print, a photo, two lithographics, and a blown-glass vase made by an artisan. Some were gifts; some were purchases; some are the work of my daughter or me.

These are the things I value not only because they bring me joy when I look at them, but because I know how much heart went into them, how much work. When we buy something from an artist, sometimes what we pay for is the time spent on that single piece, but most often we pay for education, experience, practice, tools, materials, inspiration, and all the things that led to the creation of that piece of art.

It's the same thing with accounting. You pay not only for someone to prepare your taxes; you pay for the education that taught the preparer. You pay for a roof and walls and materials and utilities.

So a photograph, simple as it seems, is not just a quick capture of a moment in time.

The other day, I took a walk down the street with a friend to shoot some of the pretty flowers we saw on the way home from dinner.  I grabbed my camera and two lenses—about $3,500 worth of equipment—and we spent about 30 minutes walking, examining the flowers, composing our shots, and pressing the button that seems to determine the photo's value in the minds of some. 

My card had more than 60 images when I returned. I previewed each, selected the ones I thought had potential to be beautiful, and went to work.  While flowers are pretty without makeup, my goal is to convey something more than an exact two-dimensional replica of a three-dimensional flower. I want to show you a world, a place you don't often notice. I want that picture to swallow one of your breaths.

The beautiful zinnia you see at the top of the page didn't look exactly like that in my camera. It was planted in a box in front of a neighbor's house, and you could see a blurred-out background of mortar and brick, but it was a little too pronounced for my liking. When you're looking at a flower, you're looking at the flower; the background shouldn't detract.  So I blew up the bloom. 

Next, I adjusted the color, clicked the Auto Tone button, adjusted the color again, clicked the HDR button and fiddled with those adjustments, pasted the previous version on top of the HDR version and erased the parts I wanted crispier before merging those two images.

Finally, I add a watermark in an inconspicuous place—not because I want to protect the image from theft (anyone with an iota of initiative can blot or crop out my watermark) but because it's mine.  I sign my work.  It's a pride thing.  I didn't spend thirty minutes editing a single photograph so that my picture could be another of the millions of anonymous images floating around without attribution.

Sometimes I'll post that photo on my Flickr or Facebook page. If you like it, you will leave me a comment saying it's beautiful. But the truth is that I want you to buy it. I want you to hire me to shoot your kid's senior portrait or the headshot for your new book or your party. 

And when I tell you that I charge $250 to $350 for a one-hour photo shoot, which includes 25 to 50 images on a DVD, you should understand that I took eight times that number and that each of those 400 images was scrutinized, that the final images were each opened and tweaked, that zits were blotted out, that skin was smoothed, that, ladies, your mustache was softened, your eyes were made to sparkle more, your tie, gentlemen, was enhanced.  What you get is hours of work that's hard on the eyes and the hands and the neck. 

I want you to find the exchange of art for money a valuable, mutually beneficial one that will bring you joy for years to come.

So even though I have that photograph lying around, collecting pixels, taking up disk space, it's not free. My name and a link to my website are not a fair exchange for the work that makes a work of art.

I don't work for free. Period.

Monday, June 10, 2013

the magnitude

My father would have been 76 today.

One of the biggest challenges about my father, second only to being a passenger in the car he was driving, was buying him presents.

Usually, we'd combine his birthday gift with his Father's Day gift to save ourselves the stress. Because he was so thoughtful with ours (he'd call a month before our birthdays, when we were cooking dinner or doing homework, expecting an immediate answer to the question of what we'd like him to buy us), we always wanted to get him something special, memorable, useful—more out of love than obligation.

Every so often, we'd get a good idea, and we'd milk that for as long as we could. Because my dad owned a paving company, and because alligatoring was a thing that happened to asphalt, we started an alligator collection for him.  He'd smile at the inside joke and set the paving stone or paperweight or bottle opener or sculpture or mosaic down on the table, and my mom would find a place for it.

The rest of it—bathrobes, sweaters, ties, socks, wallets, money clips—stayed in their boxes for years because he didn't need anything.  There was a good shot he'd wear it if it had a horse on it, though, so we'd bought him a rainbow of Polo shirts, beach towels, shorts, and enough cologne to drown a polo pony.

Sometimes we'd buy him gift certificates that he'd lose under the seat of his car or CDs he wanted but which still had the shrink wrap on them when he died.  The things he treasured the most were the XXL sleep shirts with his grandchildren's photos ironed on them. In fact, Beth would pay for the shirts and transfers, and I'd take the pictures and do the ironing.  

The last few were a large. We took them to the rehab center on Christmas, and he cried.  I'd only seen him cry maybe one other time in my life, and that was when his father died.  I'm wearing one of those shirts now, a photo of Serena kissing Marcus. My dad never got to wear it.

Today is like the last mile of firsts: first birthday without him, first Father's Day without him, and, in 25 days, it will be the end of the first year without him. 

I have been in a bad mood for eleven months. If I ever had patience, it left with my father. I'm easily frustrated, often angry, moody, pensive, and very lonely.  It would be easier to count the days I didn't cry on my way to work.  I am like a gurgling volcano. It's very hard to tell when it's safe to come near me.

On July 5th, the anniversary of his death, I expect to ooze hot lava for three days, until the headstone unveiling on the 7th, when I will be done erupting and will begin to cool down.  I might have a little residual steam, but I'll probably be safe for the tourists.

Yeah. It's going to happen just like that.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

don't work for free. period.

Your toilet is clogged, and you've called a plumber. "Is this Bob the Plumber?  Yes, I have a clogged toilet. I want you to come and fix it. In exchange, I will put a sign out on my lawn for the whole time you're here that says you are upstairs fixing my toilet. The sign will have your phone number on it. When you're finished, the sign will stay around, but it'll probably go behind the tree-trimmer's sign."

The plumber is delighted. He needs the 30 minutes of free publicity on your low-traffic street.

Can't imagine that scenario?  Substitute photographer (or writer or artist) and link to your website for plumber and sign.  Not so far-fetched anymore, is it?  

In fact, you can substitute just about any kind of artistic endeavor for any kind of service or product; the analogy is perfect.

I am not the only one to say elegantly that you shouldn't work for free.  But until you commit to the mantra that should be of every artist—regardless of medium, regardless of patron—your work will continue to be devalued by society.  Is cheapening an entire industry worth not being worth a dime a dozen to have your name on some blog somewhere, with a usually misspelled attribution and a broken link to a website you sporadically maintain? 

Artists are not rich. Our art is relegated to hobby status because we can't afford to pay our children's school tuition and our car payments with all the generous links to our websites.

A few years ago, I was asked to donate a large mosaic sculpture for an auction benefitting cancer patients. The woman who solicited the request was being paid to organize the event. The winning bidder was getting my art. And I? I would not be getting paid. The entire charity event was on the backs of the artists, the people who could least afford to donate to charity.

What about artists requesting art from each other? A friend once asked me to do some design work. If this project took off, he told me, then he'd have a lot of money to hire me for the big design jobs later.  And when that time came, he said he went with a professional designer, one who would never give away her work. Since that day 25 years ago, my policy is this:

I will trade something of value to you for something of value (usually money) to me.
 I bring this up because I received a request for a photo. I get maybe a dozen each year, but each is irksome. I want to share this exchange with you. 

Hello. My name is [Name] and I work for [Website.com]. First of all, your work is incredible. I was wondering if we could use this photo (see link below) for one of our blog posts. We will give you credit for the image and link back to your page. Please email me with your answer. 
Here's my reply:
First of all, thank you for the compliment on my work.  I have been taking photographs since I was a little girl.  I developed my own film and printed photos in high school, and I grew up to take professional portraits and other artistic shots. 
My first self-portrait, ca 1977,
shot, developed, and printed by me.
Here's my thought: I want ten bucks for the photo, and it's not the money; it's the principle.  I know you can get a free photograph from the next person—someone who wants to self-promote or add publishing credits to his or her résumé.  But I don't need either of those. 
Art takes time and costs the artist money. (My camera and one lens were more than three grand.)  So why shouldn't it cost the patron money?   
Look: you will pay someone to fix the toilet, massage your feet, and shampoo your hair. Would you ever expect someone—a stranger, no less!—to do those services for free?  Would the plumber unclog your sink for a sign on your lawn that says he's working on your bathroom?  What about shopping: could you walk into a grocery store and get free bananas? Or get a free shirt from Macy*s?  
If I got a link back to my website, would the next person ask me for a free photo, too? 
So ten bucks, my name (Leslie F. Miller), and a link to my photo site (www.lesliefmiller.com).  If you think that's a fair deal, you can send me some PayPal cash, and I'll send you a high-res image. 

I don't recommend asking for $10. In fact, I usually ask for $50 from non-profits and $100 from for-profit companies (though it's hard to tell the difference), but this would've been for one blog post, its life cut short by a flurry of new posts in short time. (Just in case you think non-profits are somehow more worthy, remember that the Directors and CEOs of large nonprofits make hundreds of thousands a year. The small ones don't, but they do pay their employees and buy office supplies!  They can afford $50. They can afford $10 for a blog photo.

Here is her reply:

As much as I understand (and agree) with your request, I'm only an intern working for a (non-profit) company/website who cannot afford to pay for the use of photos right now. For that reason, I'm going to have to pass on your kind and fair offer. However, I do encourage you to hold tight to your decision (as I am also a photographer -- amateur, but even so -- and understand completely what you mean). 
Thank you so much for your reply! I wish you all the best in your photographic endeavors.  
While her outrageously delicious writing and good grammar and perfect punctuation have me oozing with delight, I'm still giving nothing away.  

Ask your excellent dentist if you can, instead of paying her, hand out her business cards every time someone compliments your teeth! Ask your ingenious accountant if, instead of paying for having your taxes prepared, you could put a magnetic sign advertising his services on your car during tax season. Hey, wait! Don't tip the talented shampoo girl!  Wear her name on a barrette in your just-washed tresses.  

Have I ever been paid for a photograph? Yes! But no one who has ever written to request a handout has ever changed his mind. And that's fine with me. Because the people who write to ask for photos with a check in their hands are the places where the publicity will matter. And the big corporations who ask for handouts can suck my—well, this has been a family-friendly post, so I'll keep it that way.

Bottom line: hold fast to your principles. You retain so much more than those: you keep your integrity and your rights. Best of all, you do it for all artists—the photographer, the painter, the writer, the digital artist, the musician (!), the sound man, the composer, the actor. You do it for everyone, really.

If you want to give your artwork as a gift, your deserving friend will certainly appreciate that! (I do! We do!) Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations—these are the perfect opportunities to share your art with them.  But remember that even the paintings and photos hanging on the walls of your friends' homes and offices were, for the most part, paid for.  Let them pay you, too (a little less; they're friends, after all).

Share this public service announcement with everyone you know. And don't work for free. Period.

If you like what you read here, buy one of my books: BOYGIRLBOYGIRL; Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt.

And if you're still giving your work away, you're responsible for this: Save the Sun-Times Photojournalists.

Edited to add the following note from a reader:

Is writing a blog working for free?

No.  It's working for yourself. You're trading something of value to you for something of value to you. Your name is on it. You're not promoting the services or products of anyone but yourself. In other worlds (and words), it's called "advertising."

Friday, April 12, 2013

unguessed miseries (reprise)

Tonight, in my kitchen, we reminisced with friends about our camping experiences and remembered, many of us incorrectly, a night that featured a bloody t-shirt.  My daughter observed that I'm always sick while traveling, and I defended myself.  This is better.

- - - - - - -

...Who would spaniels fear,
Or strays trespassing from a neighbor's yard,
But that the dread of our unheeded cries
And scratches at a barricaded door
No claw can open up, dispels our nerve
And makes us rather bear our humans' faults
Than run away to unguessed miseries?
Thus caution doth make house cats of us all....

~Henry Beard (uncertain), "Hamlet's Cat's Soliloquy"

Summer is no time for a worrier and mom.  Knees are skinned, eyes are blackened, skin is rashed and burned, sweet ears are filled with trapped pool water.  In summer, mothers lose their boys—mostly boys, daredevils—to riptides and high cliffs at forbidden swimming holes, their girls to cars racing down the quiet street; lose their children to strangers who pluck them off a corner, lose them to their fathers.

Forget the pair of great egrets fishing in the river, the snapping turtles mating under the bridge, bobbing in the hydraulic.  Never mind the whole world come alive with chirps and clicks and calls, whoosh of sprinkler, bounce of diving board, roar of mower—sounds so comforting they could lull grown insomniacs to sleep with the promise of their parents’ protection from everything evil in the world.

Summer is my season of unguessed miseries.  

I used to be a competent traveler.  By no means was I the kind of girl who wanted to veer off the beaten path, head out on a dirt road in Mexico in a rickety ride with a Spanish map, meander the Escalante wilderness for a week with only what I could carry on my back. Still, I am a good hiker, and I like to mingle with the locals, get a more authentic travel experience than the typical tour-bus tourist.  But I need the stability offered by a nearby pre-pitched tent, a toilet with walls and a ceiling to help keep the flies out, a base camp with a four-wheeled, gas-fed sentry beside a wood post with a number.  "Please send help to number 28," I could say into the cell phone I use for emergencies.

A few years ago, while camping in just such a place with friends at Cunningham Falls State Park, we heard loud voices in the night—a big fight at a site not too far from ours.  It came and went quickly, ending with a loud pop and squealing tires.  In the morning, we found a bloody t-shirt draped over the sign. Please send police to number 28.

I don’t travel well now.  When my daughter was born, I began sleeping less and worrying more.  My first couple of vacations without her found me panicked about dying on a flight to my camping vacation in Utah, dying in a fall from a high cliff in Zion, dying from an axe murderer in the woods at Dixie National Forest.  I worried a little about my daughter, too—being away from me, getting inferior care from my parents—who knew nothing about raising a girl, after all.  Mostly I concentrated my fears on my own early death, worried that I’d never see my daughter again.

But my husband wants to show her the world, with or without me.  He prefers without.  He and my daughter first flew out to Utah two summers ago, rented a PT Cruiser, and bounced from park to park for two weeks while I worried, of course, that she’d fall from great heights; that a bad driver would crash into them; that she’d be sitting in the front seat of a vehicle with an airbag (or without one; it hardly matters); that my husband would go to the bathroom, and a stranger would snatch her from a seat in Springdale’s Bit and Spur restaurant.

These are only the guessed miseries, and they are horrid.

Last year, I decided it would be worse to sit at home and wonder than it would to join them, sleep or no sleep.  And so my daughter and I flew to Vegas and then took a bus to St. George, not too far from Zion, Utah.  The first thing I told my husband, who had driven an hour or two to pick us up, was that he smelled bad, and that set the tone for the rest of the trip.  Traveling with my family, which I have done in past years (we have taken camping trips to New Hampshire’s White Mountains and New York's Finger Lakes, with success), was not such fun this time.  My daughter didn’t want to hike and complained a lot about the heat.  My husband was already disappointed with me.  I took sleeping pills every night, got a wicked sunburn at Lake Powell, then lost my mind at the grocery store, when my daughter disappeared from my side; I ran up and down the length of the store, screaming her name, then yelled to anyone who would listen that my daughter had been stolen.  When I found her, I felt mortified and said an awful thing that I have blocked from my memory.

This summer, my husband and daughter have been planning another trip without me—filled, I’m certain, with all kinds of unguessed miseries—to California, by Ford truck.  It’s a long drive, over 3,000 miles, and so they’d need to be gone at least a month to make it worth their trouble and keep them from spending half of the time in the truck.  I have dreaded it for every moment since just before the summer began (though their departure date seems to change with each passing hour).

It’s all my daughter has talked about for months—going to California to see the redwoods (and having her own spending money—a bill in each denomination from one to one hundred).  My husband has told her the redwoods are something special, so big you can fit a restaurant in one.  He has talked it up, made it this thing between them that I cannot penetrate, try though I may with a weeklong trip to the ocean to do her favorite things like ride the Wild Mouse, play mini-golf, collect seashells.  The other trip, the great trip, still looms in the background, with it’s big, left-coast promises, my daughter’s personal Gold Rush.  And when I get home, I am going to California to see the giant redwoods, and I will have $188 to spend, so I can buy you a shirt.

It’s possible they won’t go to California; heaven knows I have wished for it, as if a trip North, instead of West, were safer.  Certainly it is less threatening than a whitewater gorge, echoic red rock canyons, and peaks that can only comfortably hold only one of those angels perched atop the head of a pin.  And maybe I will have a shot at being the hero of my daughter’s summer with a trip to the mundane shore, which included a  hot fudge sundae crepe for breakfast, a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans*, and a box of three of Tim Burton Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys.

My great wish is to be normal, myself again, less afraid of airplanes and highways, cliffs and snakes, to worry less about where and how I will sleep and for how long, to travel with my soul mate and my heart and even my own soul like I did when my husband first took me out west in 1985, when I could still view the world with wonder, when driving cross country for a month—just the two of us in a Ford Escort wagon with no AC—was luxurious, and when his company was all the company I needed.

I have spent most of this summer tapping my foot and nervously waiting to hear their travel plans.  My stomach sinks when I see the road atlas spread like a blanket over the kitchen table.  The camping gear taunts me with its slightly ajar top.  When they go, I will bite my nails and pray for summer to rush out like the undertow and the start of school to rush the Atlantic shore. Because when summer is over, when my daughter once again spends her days in the school where her father works, my biggest worries will be how she does on the spelling test and whether she is eating, from someone else’s lunch, a snack item that contains high-fructose corn syrup.  I will wonder, too, who might kiss her in the coat room or call her names at recess or give her strep throat.

But all the unguessed miseries of fall, winter, and spring combined are no match for even the guessed miseries of summer.

· · · · · · · · · ·

*Yes, the disgusting flavors do, really, taste like their namesakes; I tried both Dirt and Sardine, much to my shock and horror.

Friday, March 22, 2013

you move me.

I loved a tree.  Correction: I love the tree, though it's been dead a long time.  And despite the fact that it was chopped down today, its logs hauled away, I will continue to love it.

I met the swamp white oak, which I called "my tree," "favorite tree," and "swamp thing"—at Herring Run Park in the early nineties, when Marty and I started walking our  dog, Beowulf, there. Cleopatra soon came along, and their baby, Buddha, joined the tribe.  Jett and Chance have sniffed around that tree, too.  It's a tradition with the park dogs.

 I took my baby there. Just before Serena's third birthday, after 9/11, we were playing at the tree—running around it, talking, sitting.  My daughter was imitating Diane Rehm, whose show was nearly always on in our car, especially during the crisis of fear. She picked up a stick and spoke into it: "Mr. Terrorist," she said in a gravelly voice, "Do you use a credit card or take your lunch?"

For a few springs in a row, an oriole built her nest in the old swamp oak; you could see it hanging precariously, seeming to dangle from a limb like a softball on a string.  We kept looking for that nest long long after the oriole song had abandoned the park for good.

The tree was the cover of my homemade chapbook—croetry, which contained all my poems about birds.  I watched the tree fill with crows.  I watched owls and vultures and hawks land there.

I used to run at the park, and I took my camera there regularly, shooting that tree almost every time.  I have thousands of pictures of it on my storage drives.  In my Flickr set, my favorite tree: RIP, I have just 38 photos.  All these years I thought I was posting too many pictures of that tree, and I didn't post nearly enough.  

After my back surgery, I didn't visit it as much as I used to.  And a few years ago, some stupid, bored, hateful human, set a porta-potty on fire underneath it and killed my tree.  When I saw the damage too much later, I broke down and cried.  Red and white warning signs cropped up around it, and threats were made regarding its removal, but after a few years, I figured it wouldn't happen.  The City only cares for a park when caring is in the budget.

The email came today, though, announcing the deed.  And it is done.  Marty visited the spot today, but I don't know if I am prepared to face its absence.

This tree has been my only god.  I have told it my secrets.  I have asked for its guidance.  I have loved it as much as any person could have loved a tree.

RIP, Swamp Thing.  You made my heart sing.  You made so many things groovy.

Friday, February 22, 2013

and jesus was his name-o

When my daughter, Serena, graduated from our neighborhood Christian preschool, I was less relieved that she was kindergarten material than I was that the number of holiday recitals would dwindle.  I had attended three years of performances by the adorable singing children.  Thirty-six-inch-tall people cannot help but look cute dressed as American flags or ears of corn, making charming hand movements and touching themselves unabashedly when they have an itch.  But I was gritting my teeth behind my smiling lips. 

On the makeshift preschool stage for three of her formative years, my daughter sang cheerful songs of Christian tragedy, many having to do with the crucifixion. To the tune of “Bingo”: “There was a man from Galilee / and Jesus was his name-o / J-e-s-u-s....” To the tune of “Sugar”: “Jesus in the morning / Jesus in the evening / Jesus at suppertime.”  To the tune of “Deck the Halls”: “Jesus hanging on the cross / fa la la—.” OK, I exaggerate, but only a little.
Truth is: I’m one of those people for whom Jesus is just all right. And I knew Easter was around the corner, which meant "Jesus had a little lamb" for weeks to come.  On our way to Passover Seder, Serena would sit in the back of the car and rock herself to other goofy Jesus songs, and I would feel guilty for not teaching her any of the goofy Jewish songs—and then I'd feel guiltier because I don't know any of the goofy Jewish songs—except the one about the dreidel, and I never understood why you’d make one out of clay.
So when Serena graduated and moved to the Catholic school, where her father was the social studies teacher, I thought we’d be spared the altered tunes.        

The week before spring break, after the first grade had been bombarded with Easter lessons, Serena sang, “Jesus loves me / yes I know,” in the car on the way home from school. Every day. I began thinking about Purim services almost as a threat rather than a spiritual remedy.
Then, the day before Purim, my daughter said, “Mommy?  Do you know who I miss?”
“No, sweetie,” said innocent Mommy. “Whom do you miss?” (I said whom.)
“I miss J-e-s-u-s,” she said.
“That's it! We're going to Purim!”  I said it as if she were punished, as if I were punished right along with her, as if this were not-so-gladly the cross-eyed bear.
When we got home from school, I logged on to www.judaism101, my religious cheat sheet.  I was relieved to have remembered the gist of it: Queen Esther is the hero who married King Ahasuerus without revealing that she was Jewish.  Haman, the King’s advisor (the Karl Rove of the Old Testament), was angry with Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, for not bowing down to him, so he devised a plan to exterminate the Jews.  In a plot twist that ought to have been made into a movie (but not a musical!), Esther saves her race, and Haman is hanged on the gallows meant for Mordecai.
The story in no way excited Serena, who’d been alive for seven years and had never even seen the outside of a synagogue. She didn’t want to go, of course, because who does? Not I, but then again, I never threatened my mother with a personal relationship with Jesus.
So the next night, I drove us to a strange shul out in the county—where Jewish people live. Serena perked up when she saw the swarm of children dressed for Purim: lots of tiny Queen Esthers (Cinderellas pushing the envelope), lots of pee-wee King Ahasueruses with faux facial hair, and a couple of miniature Hamans. “Next year, can I dress up?” she asked. We were off to a good start.
The ceremony was short and sweet and mostly in Hebrew. Once everything in the room, the world, and the universe—including fruit, wine, bosses, and armadillos—was blessed, we each grabbed a grager (noisemaker) for the story of Purim. Every time Haman's name is mentioned, the congregation spins the gragers and heckles him. This was the best part.
When the Purim service ended, instead of the assembled dispersing for the usual sweet treat of Hamantashen (the triangular, poppy-seed-filled cookies also known as Haman’s hats), dozens of costumed adults and teens rushed the stage behind the Rabbi.  In moments, piano music played, and those assembled on the stage began, to the tune of “All That Jazz”:  “All That Spiel.”  I looked at my program in stunned silence.  Sure enough, every song—every song!—from the musical “All That Jazz” had been rewritten to fit the story of Purim.
For fifteen minutes, I squirmed and wriggled, tortured by doggerel and ready to crane toward the sky and howl like a dog at a siren.  “Do you have to pee, Mommy?” my daughter asked me.  Yes! And then we escaped.  Across the hall, I spied a huge platter of Hamantashen, did a cursory scan of the area, and ran in like a bandit to snag my daughter a cherry cookie. She had blessed. She had stood. She had sat. She had stood and sat and stood and sat.  As far as I was concerned, she had earned her right to do what Jews do best: eat.  Without having to suffer through a musical.
I realized then, much to my relief—for I am a good person, really—that it wasn't Jesus at all that gave me fits.  Sure, I prefer Judaism’s teachings and traditions—especially the fun ones, like this booing and hissing thing at Purim and the presents for eight nights at Chanukah and the food.  But I was relieved to know I wasn’t anti-Christ; I was simply against the lyrics and the score.  I hate musicals.
Friends who can’t bring themselves to believe this—as if I claim the ability to breathe under water—will quiz me to find the exceptions.  “What about?” they’ll ask, with an “Aha!” prepared for when I am forced to admit that I do enjoy The Wizard of Oz and have even sung the Scarecrow’s song when I am whiling away the hours in search of my brain.
The genre is creepy.  On stage are raggedy souls, victims of plague, prostitutes.  And they are singing!  Instead of a last cigarette, dying characters get a finale.
Purim is the gateway drug to Passover.  It’s a sacred time, but, like many other religious observances around the world, it’s kind of like a musical! We have the script—The Hagaddah—with lines to be read by the leader, the participant, and the assembled; we have the choreography:  “all rise,” “be seated,” “raise cups”; and we have the songs:  “Dayanu.”  My family sings only the chorus, and we sing it as if our ship were sinking: “Day-day-anu, day-day-anu, day-day-anu, dayanu dayanu, HEY!”
But that year—the year that I’d sworn off songs about Jesus and Esther, my uncle brought us a song he’d written to finish off the service:

Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes
Out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes
Fish that's gefillted, horseradish that stings
These are a few of our Passover things.

Matzoh and karpas and chopped up haroset
Shankbones and kiddish and yiddish neuroses
Tante who kvetches and uncle who sings
These are a few of our Passover things.
What’s next?  To the tune of “Maria”: “Elijah / I just saw the prophet Elijah”?   What about “Take me out to the Seder / Take me out with the crowd / Feed me on matzoh and chicken legs / I don’t care for the hard-boiled eggs.”
It’s been a long time since that Passover. My daughter has become a bat mitzvah and graduated from Catholic school (today’s Jewish dilemma is not free ham; it’s free Catholic school).  She’s now in a public high school for the arts where she plays classical, jazz, and big band saxophone.  My cousins have moved away, and both my uncle and my father have died.  The last straw? I’m fifty.  Fifty!  I turn my back for a second, and family members are dispersed and deceased, my only child practically an adult.  Oh, what a tragedy! I feel wretched.
Cue the music.