"A friend asked yesterday if this blog is addressed to anyone in particular? I said yes– it’s a love letter to someone I haven’t met yet."
Someone told me they read on a blog that two people had tattooed on their wrists the phrase "Hope gleams in the idiot heart," a line from the Russian poet Mayakovsky that they found in my novel THE MARRIAGE OF STICKS. I have always loved the permanence of tattoos, the conviction by the person who gets one that they will be happy to have this thing on their body ten, twenty, thirty years from now. But besides the stupid tattoos I see all over the place today, I have yet to see or think of anything I would want on my skin forever. However hearing about this tattoo today I thought, that's a pretty cool thing. A good permanent reminder that no matter what, there are almost always surprises around life's corners and we should keep our heads up to see them coming.
Writers, if you're having problems finding personalities or personality quirks for your characters, use Sleeping Beauty's seven dwarves as guides.
Sneezy is always sick-- a complainer, a hypochondriac who annoys people with never ending stories of his physical woes.
Sleepy is too buzzed out, stoned, or distracted to ever get the point or be taken seriously. He's the one in the crowd who always says "I don't get it" at the end of the joke or "Huh?" when something is described or explained to him. You like them but you wouldn't trust them with your credit card.
Dopey is the follower who does everything he's told because he knows he's not the sharpest pencil in the drawer.
Do little personality sketches of these guys when you're stuck on your characterizations. Almost invariably you'll find all sorts of things in those sketches that you can assign to your own people and their stories.
It was very early in the morning and I was walking the dog in the park. Of course the place was empty because it's Sunday and who the hell else is up this early on Sunday morning in a park? The dog was sniffing around and my mind was elsewhere. Vaguely realizing someone was walking towards me, I focused on the young man in his middle twenties, decently dressed, holding his wallet in his hand and looking inside it for something. I looked away, not interested. When he passed me he said in English in a furious growl "I will kill you if it's the last thing I ever do on this earth." I looked at him, stunned. He stared right back, eyes furious. I pulled the dog's leash and moved on. As I was leaving the park he shouted "I swear to God I'll kill you!"
The old woman comes up to me on the street and says without hesitation "Paulie died."
I don't know what she's talking about, but a second later I recognize both her and what she means. She and her ancient dog Paulie used to walk around the neighborhood for what seemed like hours. He barely moved but she was all right with that. I'd see them out early in the morning and late at night always inching along, Paulie sniffing here and there, checking things out you know he had already checked out ten thousand times in his life.
"How old was he?"
"Eighteen. He just didn't wake up one morning."
I waited a moment and then said as gently as I could, "Well, eighteen is a good long life."
"He always liked you."
"Yes, I know he was always glad to see you. He thought of you as a friend."
I want to say something but don't know what. I manage a "thank you."
She nods and walks away.
We spend our lives learning how to rationalize our imperfect behavior, but let me tell you something: It all boils down to the three sizes of guilt.
When it is small, we can slip it into our pocket and not think about it for the rest of the day. Didn't do your exercises? Or write that letter to your mother? Make the call? Fix the nice soup for the family you had planned? Screw it--the day was hard enough and you did your bit.
Medium-sized guilt doesn't fit into the pocket and must be carried awkwardly in the hand like an iron barbell or, when it's really bad, a squirming live animal. We know it's there every minute, yet still find ways to lessen or shift our discomfort. Having an affair and aren't so nice to your spouse because you're spending too much energy on this new love? Go buy the old love some obscenely expensive, thoughtful gift and what time you do spend together, be so passionate and concerned about them that you glow in the dark.
Large sized guilt either crushes you or bends you so far to the ground that, either way, you're immobilized. No shifting *this* weight and no getting out from under it.
It's pretty hard to improve on the wonderfulness of a ripping summer thunderstorm, but I recently witnessed an example. The storm came in pretty quickly although you knew about fifteen minutes before it hit that those galloping dark clouds would have something loud to say when they arrived. I was working at my desk when the storm broke and the only reason I looked up was because open windows started flapping in the wind. Then came the screams. Before standing up I listened carefully a few seconds because although they were high and many, they didn't sound scared or distressed; just a lot of jubilant screaming. When I went to close windows, the storm really got rocking-- horizontal rain, furious wind, raindrops the size of golf balls verging on hale. As I walked around the apartment shutting windows, I finally saw where all this noise came from: a school class of eight or nine year old's was down on the sidewalk with their teacher waiting for the stoplight to change. All of them were absolutely positively furiously and utterly *drenched.* Their school is nearby and what had obviously happened was while out on a class trip, they got caught in this storm just as they were walking back. The wonderful part was that all of these children were dancing, every single one of them. I mean really- going- nuts- boogey'ing. And if not dancing, jumping jumping jumping in absolute ecstasy as they got soaked. All the kids had given up trying to stay dry which was impossible anyway in that downpour. They were just getting wet as hell while standing at the light, loving it and showing their love as purely as only kids can do-- dancing wildly and shouting with top- of- their- lungs joy. I couldn't even distinguish which ones were their teachers because the rain was coming down so hard. It's been years since I saw that much happiness exploding all at the same time.
I don't know about you, but when I think back on certain books I've read, I often remember the circumstances or the places I read it more than the book itself. In some cases I can't even remember the plot beyond certain basics, but can clearly see where I was and how I felt when reading it: that horrible hot airport where the flight kept getting delayed and the only thing to do was read this stupid thriller. Or the perfect table outside at a small cafe in the middle of Switzerland one summer where all I did was drink coffee, read Salter's "Light Years," and now and then look up to watch the yellow chestnut trees rustle in the breeze. The enormous blue Mark Helprin novel in a dumpy but wonderful rooming house in Greece. Reading Edward Gorey's "The Unstrung Harp" for the first time on a very rainy November day, so caught up in what I was reading and seeing that the 2nd Coming could have happened around me but I wouldn't have noticed. Proust had his matelot to remind him of his childhood. Books do the same thing for me.
He was winter to her. Whenever she thought of their relationship everything was framed in winter-- hot drinks, heavy sweaters, their breaths white together on the cold air when they took their walks. They had been together in the summer too, but he wasn't summer to her. He was always winter. It made her think we assign people-- lovers especially-- seasons in our minds. She told a girlfriend this and the other gushed back immediately, "Yes! I know exactly what you mean! I've been married so long but I still always think of Ted against a summer background. Wearing shorts and t-shirts, eating ice cream, or on a beach together playing with the kids... Never in winter. I never picture him in a big coat or gloves or anything. Why do you think we do that-- give people seasons?"
You made crusty bread rolls...
by Gary Johnson
You made crusty bread rolls filled with chunks of brie
And minced garlic and drizzled with olive oil
And baked them until the brie was bubbly
And we ate them thoughtfully, our legs coiled
Together under the table. And then salmon with dill
And lemon and whole-wheat couscous
Baked with garlic and fresh ginger, and a hill
Of green beans and carrots roasted with honey and tofu.
it was beautiful, the candles and linens and silver,
The winter sun setting on our snowy street,
Me with my hand on your leg, you, my lover,
In your jeans and green T-shirt and beautiful feet.
How simple life is. We buy a fish. We are fed.
We sit close to each other, we talk and then we go to bed
An interesting letter from a reader:
Mid 80' summers were long and hot. I remember being sent to my godfather's house that stood in the middle of painfully flat meadows. Both boredom and heat were slowing me down, making me dizzy and not sure who I am anymore.
I remember one lazy afternoon. Laying on the grass in the orchard. Breathing in heavy air and smell of half - rotten fruit. My eyes were closed. I was slowly eating sweet, ripe apples.
And then the wasps came.
I felt the first one landing on my lips. Then the next one and few others. I was petrified. I couldn't breathe.
But the wasps tamed me. The tenderness of their movements hypnotized me. I didn't want them to go. I gave in. I opened my mouth, slowly letting the wasps in. They were feeding on the bits of apple and at the same time they were eating all the primal fears away. They flew away but they left the essence of their presence within me.
I was 8. Since then I'm longing for the feeling of wasps crawling into my mouth. I live my life chasing the wasps.
There is a discount supermarket chain in Austria (let's call it Delta) that sells almost- things. If your favorite candy is called 'Freddy' bars and they're wrapped in red white and blue packages, what Delta does is sell their own brand called 'Friendly' bars, wrap them in virtually identical red white and blue packages, and charge a lot less for them. Whether it be candy, frozen pizza, red wine... the company's thing is to sell cheaper products that are almost the real thing but not quite. And the same is true about how these products taste or work. 'Friendly' candy bars might have almost the same ingredients as 'Freddy' bars, but they don't taste anywhere near as good. Their dishwashing soap is thin and sort of useless although it's colored and packaged to look just like Palmolive. The meat in their dog food cans is a weird shade of gray and makes the dog fart *a lot*. However as is usually the case, it takes two to dance. The Delta people are saying "Why pay full price for Freddy bars? Ours are just like them but cost half as much." You know though that isn't true. You usually get what you pay for. But you buy the cheaper one anyway and end up disappointed. So is Delta trying to fool you with their almost-goods? Yes. But are you to blame for buying them when you know about 90% of the time products like 'Friendly bars' are crap? Yes. Walking by one of these stores the other day, someone said to me, "You know Michael? He always reminds of something you'd buy at a Delta store." I knew exactly what she meant.
Years ago I saw her almost every day walking with her daughter. The two women were inseparable. I never saw either of them with a man, so I just assumed the father was gone. They always appeared to be having intense conversations. It was clear from the way they spoke that they took each other seriously. Both dressed nicely and with care, as if they were on their way to somewhere special whenever you encountered them. Then one day I saw the woman walking alone. It surprised me because I could not remember ever having seen her by herself-- she was always with her daughter. The girl now appeared to be in her middle teens so I just assumed she was off at school somewhere and would be back for holidays. But I never saw her again. Only the mother and the sad thing is, whenever I see her now she's always walking very quickly, as if late for an appointment. However I discovered eventually where she was going: to the neighborhood park to feed the birds. She carries a large purse and out of it she'll take either bread crumbs or bird food and scatter it on the ground at specific spots around the park. No matter what the season, she's there feeding the birds and filling their drinking spots with bottled water. The other day I saw her and mentioned her to someone from the neighborhood. "Oh yes, the Bird Lady. Do you know she goes four or five times a *day* to feed them? It used to be a couple of times a week. Then every day, now it's four or five times a day. Soon she'll probably pitch a tent and just live in the park." I looked at the well dressed woman and wondered where her daughter was, her great friend, the one who for so many years kept her from becoming the bird lady
Two decades ago before the Internet and websites like www.abebooks.com made the process easy, it was both tough and expensive to find rare or out of print books. We were talking about books that really mattered to us. She mentioned Theodore Weesner's great novel THE CAR THIEF. Both of us swooned on about how wonderful it was and how we had discovered the book when it came out in the 70's. She said years later she suddenly got the desire to re-read it but could not find a copy anywhere. So she contacted a bunch of rare booksellers by mail and one of them eventually said he'd found a mint first edition of the book but it cost a lot. She first thought OW when she saw the price, but then reasoned not only would she get to re-read it, but she'd own a perfect copy of a favorite book that she could treasure always. So she took a deep breath and $$ be damned, bought it. A couple of days after it arrived, she had to go on a business trip to London. She decided to take THE CAR THIEF with her because an airplane is the perfect place to do concentrated reading. But by the time she got on her night flight, she was so exhausted that she sat down and immediately fell asleep. She never even opened the book. The next morning after landing, while moving through Heathrow airport, who should she see but David Bowie walking alone toward her. Bowie was her favorite singer and as soon as she recognized him she thought I have to say hello/do something/let him know how much I love his work. Then it came to her-- she reached into her bag, took out the unopened pristine, outrageously expensive copy of THE CAR THIEF and walked right over to the famous singer. Handing it to him she said, "I love your music and right now the only way I can show you that is to give you this. I hope you read it and love it as much as I do." Bowie took the book, smiled and after a small bow to her, walked off.
In the park across the street a war is going on. The war of the wall. One large wall of the basketball court has been given to local graffiti artists. For a long time it was a chaotic mess of squiggles and badly drawn swirly initials-- the kind of dumb doodles that gives good graffiti a bad name because it's so meaningless and sloppy. But recently something interesting has been going on and I wonder if it will continue. A few weeks ago I saw a guy in a hoodie sweatshirt at work painting the wall one afternoon. At his feet were many cans of spray paint and although he had only just begun, it was clear his work was accomplished. Later I went to the park specifically to see what his finished product looked like. It was terrific-- beautifully drawn, imaginative, very much like the work of the artist Kenny Scharf. But in two days it was gone--completely covered over by a mass of very badly painted glop-- black or phosphorescent orange and green stick drawings, letters, and other crap that looked like a bunch of ten year old 'Attention Deficit Disorder' kids had eaten too much sugar and then attacked the wall with paint. It was sad because
what they'd erased with their junk was the real thing-- an artist at work. A few days later I grinned when I saw that familiar guy in a hoodie with the many cans of paint at his feet, back working on the wall. This time what he did there was completely different but just as good. I wanted to go over and compliment him, say good for you, man. But I was too shy and didn't. Instead I just stood well back and watched him work. He was fast and adept. He knew exactly what he was doing and the only time he stopped painting was when he'd take a few steps back, look at what he'd done, and then return to work. But once again the nasties rolled in afterwards and completely defaced this new work. I wondered what he thought when he saw it. All those hours put in, coming up with something special and very much his own. His gift to the world, erased by the barbarian horde. This morning early while walking the dog in the park my heart lifted when in the early light, I saw he'd returned and covered the wall yet again with his artistry. It reminded me of that Bruce Cockburn song lyric, "You've got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight."
French words and phrases with no direct English translation
Dépaysement: The sensation of being in another country.
La douleur exquise: The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have. Even a Sex in the City episode was named after it!
Chômer: To be unemployed, but because it’s a verb, it makes the state active.
Profiter: To make the most of or take advantage of.
Flâneur: As defined in the book Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, it’s “the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”
Esprit d’escalier: The literal translation is staircase wit, but it means to think of a comeback when it’s too late.
Retrouvailles: The happiness of meeting again after a long time.
Sortable: An adjective for someone you can take anywhere without being embarrassed.
Voila/voici: It’s so necessary that we use it all the time. “Voila” literally means “there it is” and “voici means “here it is.”
Empêchement: An unexpected last-minute change of plans. A great excuse without having to be specific.
by Eleanor Lerman.
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.
And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
"Somewhere someone is thinking of you. Someone is calling you an angel. This person is using celestial colors to paint your image. Someone is making you into a vision so beautiful that it can only live in the mind. Someone is thinking of the way your breath escapes your lips when you are touched. How your eyes close and your jaw tightens with concentration as you give pleasure a home. These thoughts are saving a life somewhere right now. In some airless apartment on a dark, urine stained, whore lined street, someone is calling out to you silently and you are answering without even being there. So crystalline. So pure. Such life saving power when you smile. You will never know how you have cauterized my wounds. So sad that we will never touch. How it hurts me to know that I will never be able to give you everything I have."
AS IT IS
The man I love hates technology, hates
that he’s forced to use it: telephones
and microfilm, air conditioning,
car radios and the occasional fax.
He wishes he lived in the old world,
sitting on a stump carving a clothespin
or a spoon. He wants to go back, slip
like lint into his great-great-grandfather’s
pocket, reborn as a pilgrim, a peasant,
a dirt farmer hoeing his uneven rows.
He walks when he can, through the hills
behind his house, his dogs panting beside him
like small steam engines. He’s delighted
by the sun’s slow and simple
descent, the complicated machinery
of his own body. I would have loved him
in any era, in any dark age; I would take him
into the twilight and unwind him, slide
my fingers through his hair and pull him
to his knees. As it is, this afternoon, late
in the twentieth century, I sit on a chair
in the kitchen with my keys in my lap, pressing
the black buttons on the answering machine
over and over, listening to his message,
his voice strung along the wires outside my window
where the birds balance themselves
and stare off into the trees, thinking
even in the farthest future, in the most
distant universe, I would have recognized
this voice, refracted, as it would be, like light
from some small, uncharted star.
~ Dorianne Laux
"What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . . . "
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
"Perhaps we don’t like what we see: our hips, our loss of hair, our shoe size, our dimples, our knuckles too big, our eating habits, our disposition. We have disclosed these things in secret, likes and dislikes, behind doors with locks, our lonely rooms, our messy desks, our empty hearts, our sudden bursts of energy, our sudden bouts of depression. Don’t worry. Put away your mirrors and your beauty magazines and your books on tape. There is someone right here who knows you more than you do, who is making room on the couch, who is fixing a meal, who is putting on your favorite record, who is listening intently to what you have to say, who is standing there with you, face to face, hand to hand, eye to eye, mouth to mouth. There is no space left uncovered. This is where you belong."
The park is absolutely empty at seven o'clock on Sunday morning except for two people: a man and his very young daughter who is no more than six or seven. The man is teaching her a Greek dance. Side by side, arms held high in the air, slowly and carefully they do the formal steps together: leg crossing leg, slapping the knees, jumping in the air and shouting "hopah!" at the end of the cycle. The girl is very bad at it, very clumsy. She keeps stumbling but her father catches her every time just before she falls. Righting herself, she squirms out of his hands and shouts "Again! Again!" Both of them immediately start dancing again, big smiles on their faces.
New words that you need to know:
Waldeinsamkeit (German): the feeling of being alone in the woods
2. Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
3. Taarradhin (Arabic): a way of resolving a problem without anyone losing face (not the same as our concept of a compromise – everyone wins)
4. Litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery
5. Esprit de l’escalier (French): a witty remark that occurs to you too late, literally on the way down the stairs…
6. Meraki (Greek): doing something with soul, creativity, or love
7. Yoko meshi (Japanese): literally ‘a meal eaten sideways’, referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language:
8. Duende (Spanish): a climactic show of spirit in a performance or work of art, which might be fulfilled in flamenco dancing, or bull-fighting, etc.
9. Guanxi (Mandarin): in traditional Chinese society, you would build up good guanxi by giving gifts to people, taking them to dinner, or doing them a favour, but you can also use up your gianxi by asking for a favour to be repaid.
10. Pochemuchka (Russian): a person who asks a lot of questions
11. Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): to borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left
12. Radioukacz (Polish): a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain
13. Selathirupavar (Tamil): a word used to define a certain type of absence without official leave in face of duty
The Nearness That Is All
by Samuel Hazo
Love's what Shakespeare never
said by saying, "You have
bereft me of all words, lady."
Love is the man who siphoned
phlegm from his ill wife's throat
three times a day for seven
Love's what the Arabs
mean when they bless those
with children: "May God keep them
Or why a mother
whispers to her suckling, "May you
Love's how the ten-year
widow speaks of her buried
husband in the present tense.
Love lets the man with one leg
and seven children envy no man
living and none dead.
leaves no one alone but, oh,
lonely, lonelier, loneliest
at midnight in another country.
Love is jealousy's mother
Love's how death
creates a different nearness
but kills nothing.
makes lovers rise from each
loving wanting more.
says impossibility's possible
Love saddens glad
days for no bad reason.
Love gladdens sad days
for no good reason.