Tender is the Night…

..and my poor feet after a day of heels. I just reread last night’s post and realized that if one is unfamiliar with my writing style that one might have missed my underlying sarcasm and the self-deprecation that haunts my every sentence. So all that talk about “there weren’t no Chinese in these parts” was an expression of awe, not of racism, so get over it, dude.

We — my daughters and I — have moved back (only I am moving back; they’re all just along for the ride) to whitest rural Penngrove after three years in Alameda, midtown to West End, and before that almost ten years in suburban but integrated San Leandro, and before that, crack heaven in Oakland (literally — we lived next to a liquor store at East 20th and 23rd Avenue. We were burglarized over and over again, had criminals fleeing the police through our yard and once found a loaded gun on the garage roof. Also picked up hundreds of crack baggies off the sidewalk in front and a dealer used to stash his stuff in our front yard. Nice.) A few jumps back put me deep in the Mission and the Excelsior districts of San Francisco, where I polished my street Spanish, and before all that, why, I was in lovely Penngrove, sucking my thumb and wondering how the hell I was gonna get out of the sticks and make it to the Big City.

Ergo, Penngrove looks mighty white to our eyes.

These are taboo subjects for us, you know. We aren’t supposed to notice race, or write about it, especially when we’re white, because that makes us racist. We can’t even discuss it because there is this assumption that behind the cupped hand, there is an inner core of prejudice. Race is only allowed as fodder for discussion for people of color. And that’s OK, but you know what? There are issues of racial identity for Caucasian people, too. Issues of the white bread syndrome — we are bland, we have no culture, we have no heritage to fall back on, we who are Heinz 57. (Notice how I say “we” when this time I actually don’t mean “we/I,” I actually mean everyone but not particularly myself because I do have a culture and heritage…proud to be Scottish and English! Luckily, I speak the language already.)

Well, clearly, I digress, and I have already run out of enthusiasm for that topic because it isn’t one I’m passionate about…is there a lesson here? Well, yes, several, the primary one being:

Write about what you love or hate — whatever brings out the passion in you.


Don’t be afraid of the difficult topics, the ones we’re not supposed to talk about or mention. Again, press what hurts, dig for the gold. It’s in there.

I have written about all kinds of things and am revving towards longer works which are yet more shocking. Like what? Like my affair with a Catholic priest (see Tongues of Angels), albeit fictionalized. Like various erotica about various erotic subjects (available on request). Like my most recent short fic about a little girl longing for her (female) teacher. Like the first chapter in my memoir about the priestly affair — not shot in soft focus this time, oh, no. Like a series of reality-based essays about parenting — again, no Vaseline and pink light. All real. And so many more stories cooking on the back burner…

This is the real thing, friends, what we should be aiming for. Do it right, the big story, the hard stuff — consider it a challenge. As my friend Gerry the Scottish poet once said to me, “We stand or fall on our own honesty.” Indeed.

Chinese Food

…for dinner led me down the path of memory. I stopped just off the freeway and ordered food to go, and while I sat and waited, the waiter brought me a steaming porcelain cup of green tea. It was too hot to hold with my bare hand, so I pulled my sleeve over my hand and held the tiny cup in the mitts of my own clothing to drink. It didn’t take long for my food to arrive.

When I grew up in Penngrove, there were no Chinese restaurants; there were no Chinese, either. There was one Japanese-American family and no one else of color I can recall. That was how integrated and diverse Penngrove was. When I got to high school in Petaluma, the largest recognizable ethnic group besides the white Americans was the exchange students. Yes, Hans and Michael and Yosef stood out like sore thumbs in their lederhosen and clogs. We broke the white kids down into groups — the Italian kids, the Irish, the Germans, and the few outsiders, spit on and tormented in the hallways, who were punk rockers (it was late 1970s). And there were a few who, inexplicably, wanted to be low-riders; we called them the wannabes and skirted them in the hallways, clearly confused by their seemingly random choice of identity. There were a few boys who were called fairies who ended up embracing their orientation (amazing that they turned out so well despite the torment of the masses), and there was one guy who took his Bible everywhere in a leather zipped case and preached to us at lunch. I’m sure by now he has a lovely wife and a bunch of kids and he surfs the Internet to look at gay porn after the wife has gone to bed. Just guessing.

Moving back to Sonoma County, I find that it is not the sticks anymore, but it is still pretty white. In fact, it’s an awful lot like Marin County, and just about everyone I meet seems to have moved here from there. It used to be all dirty pickups with gunracks. Now it’s giant SUVs and megapickups with luxury cabs that seat six. An amazing number of Mercedes and Hummers in the school parking lot. Not like it used to be.

I don’t like all the development that has cropped up in the past 20 years, eating up the hayfields and pastureland. I compare it to Burnham Woods or the coming of the huorns, encroaching on the green fields. I used to be able to get from my boyfriend’s house in Petaluma to my parents’ place in 8 minutes at 10:55 p.m., just barely breaking curfew by driving about 90 up Old Redwood Highway. I remember when the Phoenix was a movie theater. I was here when they filmed “Heroes” with Sally Field and Henry Winkler at the old Greyhound station, which is no longer that but I think a mailbox place now – 4th and C Streets? I remember when the police station was a mortuary. When the outlet mall was a brown field. My brother used to slaughter cattle at the feedlot on Old Redwood Highway just as you head north from town. He’d come home with his clothes stained brown from blood, and tell us tales of how they used the cows’ tongues to clean the carcasses, and how they fooled the health inspectors.

The spring of my senior year I was a waitress at the Boulevard Bowl Coffee Shop, and my boyfriend was a champion bowler. I remember the night he bowled a 300 during league play and the American Bowling Congress sent him a diamond ring. Some nights we’d go to the empty trailer which was the band’s practice shed and I’d sit on a packing crate while they thrashed their way through sets of songs, each one nearly identical to the last. My ears would ring all the way home. Some nights we partied and I remember driving home out Ely, or maybe Adobe, which are so straight that they could have been laid out by Romans, and closing my eyes, long blinks during which I clearly dreamed, then opened again to find myself closer to home. The car seemed to know the way, and how to stay on the road.

Before that I worked at the deli near the little park between Western & Washington on the Boulevard – it was called Perry’s but is now something Italian (Domenico’s?). My dad was their bookkeeper back then. I remember the town before poor Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered, and watching the whole thing unfold on TV in San Leandro. My eldest daughter suffered horrible nightmares about it. I kept seeing familiar faces on TV when the volunteers and cops were interviewed.

I could go on. But it’s weird — I was drawn to Alameda by its familiarity — similarity to Petaluma. And now I’m back, and it is so different — and so much the same. I knew it like an intimate friend, and now I go back and find that a grocery store has become the school district headquarters, but some of the same teachers are still teaching at Penngrove Elementary School and at my high school a million years later. There’s Chinese food available down the street — and a Starbucks, an Applebee’s, a Burger King, a Subway. All the delights of any suburban strip mall.


Advice to aspiring writers: Never underestimate the power of memory.

The Desperate Hours

I spent the weekend running hither and thither, in pursuit of about 20 different things and accomplishing just about one of them. On the horizon we see no fewer than ten bareroot roses, haphazardly leaning in the garden, begging to be planted. We see Mt. Laundry, defying me to conquer its mighty slopes. We consider the state of our sheets (hey, it’s cold, we’re not sweating, nobody in there but me)…(and the cat). We contemplate the dust bunnies — or shall we just call them dust oxen? We see the filth of the commute in dried dribbles of grime on our vehicle; it is only a matter of days before some wicked yet observant child graffitis those dread words on the back window. My office in my new house is a shambles of boxes labeles “Important Papers” and “Office Supplies,” and one doesn’t know where to look for one’s tax documents, for example, or one’s daughter’s birth certificate, and one’s paid bills are in a sliding heap on one’s floor. Not a pretty sight.

The weekends without children seem to hold some incredible promise. It is much like those rare hours of sudden silence when the girls were just babies. In the afternoon, God willing, the baby would fall asleep and the house was silent. The hour or two (unplannable because you never knew how long you had) would open up like a gift, and I would have to decide what I would do to capitalize on the time. And then I would find myself paralyzed by indecision: should I mop the floor? Make phone calls? Run outside for fresh air and some quick yard work? Take a nap myself? Attempt to write?

The desire to write was always there — it was my fondest goal, the one least accomplished when my girls were small. It is because (drumroll, please) You Cannot Force the Muse. The Muse will not be called. Just as you can’t just go out the door and run, you must warm up before you break the four-minute mile, the writer must prime the pump before the novel will flow. I think that takes dedication and practice, and a routine of writing at a certain time of day for as many days as possible. But baby days are not really good writing days; at least, they weren’t for me. I would lay the baby in her crib (and the toddler, too), and want with all my heart to sit at the typewriter or computer or even with a pad of paper and write poetry — but it just wouldn’t come.

Instead, the poems came in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or in the car, or in church, or having sex with my husband — all inopportune times for seizing a pen and beginning to write. And if you wait till the time is proper, the moment is gone, the Muse has fled, and your efforts pallid and limp. And the reality was that I was just too tired to do anything when those rare hours came. I usually just took a nap or read magazines because I was too exhausted to be creative on demand.

That was then; this is now, and now my days are chock full of writing, editing, driving, organizing, and managing all the etceteras of being a working single parent. The visitation schedule is that the kids go visit their dad every two weeks for the weekend, unless of course they don’t want to go, or have a birthday party or sleepover or competition or game. When the kids are home I don’t work on the weekends, meaning I don’t cover politics or events or whatever is happening in town; I’ll just do what I can on the computer or by e-mail around kid and family stuff. I often work most of the weekends when I don’t have kids; I schedule workshops or go to evening performances, etc. because there are no kids to worry about — no complaining that they are bored, no leaving them with babysitters. I try to get most of the odious stuff done on those off weekends when I can do it uninterrupted and save our weekends for fun stuff like movies or visiting with family friends.

So this weekend dawns brimming with promise: I can get the house clean, I can fulfill the demands of my job, I can satisfy the extracurricular activities I have given myself, and yes, I can get going on the novel! I can! I think. I might. I should. I must.

I didn’t. Dust oxen still here. Poor roses still weeping derelict in the garden. Only half a mountain of laundry conquered. Nary a fresh word written on the novel. Or the memoir. Or the other writing projects. But I did organize my office at last. I filed almost everything. I emptied all the boxes and put away all the office supplies. I separated the stuff I need for teaching, for book promotion, for the new lit-zine, and for future projects. I have an in-basket for bills and a place for important papers. And I can see both the floor and the top of the desk.

I did not make it to the symphony. I did not make it to the writer’s group meeting. I did help my eldest daughter with her first-person essay for English 1A, and I did make it to my board meeting Sunday morning. I haven’t written a word, but at least the slate is clean, the palate cleared. Now, with a little organization at my fingertips, I am ready to roll.

Query: will I?

The Artist’s Way…

…I was thinking about American Idol on the way home, actually looking forward to watching it, because I enjoy music and hearing a good singer is a pleasure not to be denied. There is perhaps a bit of schadenfreude in the watching of it, but that’s as far as my reality TV viewing goes. I like watching American Idol and hearing these people get honest critiques. Especially in the audition portion. I have to agree with host Simon Cowell when he tells these people they cannot sing. Truly, they can’t.

I’m not a bad singer myself, you know. I can carry a tune, easily mark out a harmony and find the note. Frankly, I never trained; I just have a pretty good ear. It is what allows me to play the piano in a rudimentary way; I don’t take lessons, I am bad at reading the music, but I know when I am right and when it’s wrong. I would never pass myself off as being any kind of musician, though, nor singer. My eldest calls my piano-playing “plinking,” because that’s about it — I can plink out a few tunes and follow the notes enough to play some very short and simple pieces. I like to sing. I am not bad in the car and used to be awesome in the shower. But guess what, folks — that’s as far as it goes. American Idol I am not.

Advice to writers, singers, artists of any sort: Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses. Work at it to improve your craft, but please, please, do not suffer from the hubris of the stage or the printed page. If you are not good, there is no hiding it. Simon said, “There is no underestimating the self-delusion of the American people when it comes to their own singing voices.” I could say the same for some writers, too.

I used to be the publicist for a large, well-loved theater in the Bay Area. They put on three summer musicals per year and I would go every April to watch auditions. The director was an elderly gentleman who had performed on Broadway and had been directing forever. He was — and still is — an amazing talent. He could hear a couple of bars of a song and that was enough; he could hear everything he needed in just that. This gentleman made the “cruel” Simon Cowell look like Mr. Nice Guy. The thing is, onstage, you either have it or you don’t. Auditions are brutal, and if you can’t take it, you won’t make it. I would sit there and listen to these talented singers perform a verse from some Broadway show, and either it was a great pleasure or it was painful. And he would cut them off and say, “Thank you,” and move on to the next. It’s a cutthroat business, and you’ve got to be really good, and a little different, too. Gotta stand out in some way, and be really skilled to boot. Much like writing, to which I will return in a moment.

Watching American Idol auditions reminded me of the April theater auditions — these seasoned performers with their patience wearing thin, and so many wannabes turning up to try to get discovered — shoom, sent on their way with no ceremony, no politesse. Just adios, amigo, and on we go to the next contestant.

I think writing is like that. Try to get yourself an agent, or a few minutes with the editor of whatever journal or zine or publication that you want to get into, and believe me, friend, your song and dance number had better be polished; it had better shine. In other words, your entree — your cover letter, your query, your opening lines — had better be the best thing you’ve ever written, or it will not be read. And you will not be published.

Case in point: Recently I received a request from a would-be writer who wanted to write for the newspaper. His offerings included no newspaper writing, but rather a poem (a fairly frightening example — an ode to water), a critical paper dissecting a beloved poem, and a cover letter. The first problem? Typos in the cover letter. Try using capital letters when you begin a sentence, for one thing, sweetie, and try using this neat thing we call a period. Oh, and commas — they’re very useful, too. The applicant had apparently no knowledge of these useful tools, and no, friends, it wasn’t because he was going for an e.e. cummings sort of deal.

Further note to aspiring writers: You can break the rules if you know you are breaking them. If you don’t know the rules and are merely lazy or illiterate, don’t expect any assistance from those of us who work in the field for a living. It is hard to be impressed by your sloth and ignorance.

Furthermore, in re the aspiring applicant, his critique was not well written and he called the poem “The Ancient Mariner,” rather than by its correct name, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” throughout. Hmm. So you want to write for a newspaper, which demands well-crafted articles and accuracy as cornerstones of its success. And your clips are sloppy and inaccurate? Hmm. Even a piddly little weekly like mine (and I say that fondly, not disparagingly) needs the best we can get, not whatever dregs fall through the mail slot. So, adios, amigo.

Back to writing: Aspiring Writers, all, please heed my advice. You can improve. You may not be perfect now (none of us started out perfect, and guess what? None of us are perfect yet.) but you will improve if you take the advice of more seasoned writers to heart. Please, proofread your work before you send it out, and get someone else to help you if you aren’t good at catching those errors. Know your weaknesses; with care, they can be overcome.

Alas, my pleas will fall on deaf ears. Simon’s did. He and his cohorts were forced to sit through a cross-country tour of baaaaad singing. If you watch this sort of show, or Star Search, or whatever, think back to your writing and, better yet, turn off the telly and go apply your ass to the chair at the desk. It will be time better spent.

More on this topic later.

Fast Lane…

…Wow, I hadn’t realized how far behind I would be by missing an entire week of work. From Sunday to Sunday I was home sick and came back to 93 e-mail messages on one account, 85 on the other. Plus snail mail, memos, inbox, yikes! Crazy days, but I’m getting back into it. Although it was blissful not to have to drive to work every day, I was too sick to make use of my home time. Instead, though, I did have many clever thoughts (along with some psycho-lurid dreams, courtesy of the flu, eek!). And among those thoughts is the necessity to get a new computer, plus a brilliant idea for a collection of short stories with Jane Austen as the unifying theme.

Now, if only I had the time to write them…