mary kate

Countless things spool through my mind when I think of Mary Kate. Today, the day after she died, I’m thinking a lot about that; that she died. More frames reel, and something keeps coming back around: her hands. Mary Kate’s were working hands. Holding books as she read to everyone’s kids, the fragile juggling of double-pointed needles turning out endless beautiful wool socks for her family. Hands that were happiest in the dirt of her gardens.
              My woolgathering thoughts move to a tree in her front yard, some sort of Scottish tree that just doesn’t grow in this country, but some old Scot who’d owned the house before her grafted it onto a tree stump that grows happily here. It’s an amazing tree. A climber like none I’ve ever seen. As a tomboy growing up in the woods of the Catskill Mountains I’d clambered my share of limbs, and none of them came close to the perfect climbingness of that tree.
              Mary Kate was never not making something with her hands. When I was filling plastic eggs with store-bought chocolate, she was creating little Easter animal figures out of wool and felt and embroidery thread. At Christmas she gave me a tiny baby elf of wool, sleeping in its walnut-shell cradle. She made the kinds of things that take your breath with their delicate sweetness. Each of her four children has a collection of these beautiful treasures crafted individually with her love and her hands.
              Her gardens are unparalleled beauty. They are perfect cottage gardens of herbs, perennials, strawberries and fruit trees. Some have tiny stepping stone paths, others are built on little hillsides; terraced steps of perfection. She knew exactly what each plant was, and what it needed to thrive. She knew this about her children too.
              I’ll remember Mary Kate with her hands in the dirt, and now the dirt will receive her back, and if I were dirt I’d welcome her home.


i write like

I write like Stephen King. And James Joyce. And Chuck Palahniuk, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, Jonathan Swift, Arthur Conan Doyle, and David Foster Wallace. Depending on the day.
              I plugged a dozen or so of my blog posts into http://iwl.me/ to “Check what famous writer you write like with this statistical analysis tool, which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them to those of the famous writers.”
              Sarah Palin writes like Dan Brown. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes like Jack London. I think I’ll just stick to translating paragraphs to Japanese and back until reaching equilibrium. Here’s the first paragraph of the “happy man” post below.

The young man, speaking in front of the joy and laughter in the history of Keno, Kitou Yamuyamunudoruba voice planting sister gesticulating week. "He was always happy," said Nina, "but he is walking down the street in front of the car. It is my fear.”
See, isn’t that more fun?


you can syndicate any boat you row

I was driving with my niece and her 10 year old daughter and my almost-five nephew a few weeks ago, around the windy hilly roads of West Saugerties and Woodstock, and I’m not sure how we got to singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat in 3-part round, but we did. Mimi has a beautiful voice, and Kat has her mother’s musicality, her voice sweet and true. Mila and Kat sang one part from the back seat, Mila hanging on well even when the song got complicated. Mimi and I each sang one of the other parts. I was tickled at how good we sounded, and I wished I had done this with my kids. Yeah, I used to sing to them when they were little, but once I wasn’t rocking them to sleep that stopped. I’m self-conscious about singing (thanks Mr. Blish!) so you won’t hear me breaking into song unless you’ve smuggled yourself into the trunk of my car. Probably not, anyway.


the happy man

I was planting a tree with my sister outside of yumyum noodle bar a few weeks ago when a young man walked by, giggling and gleeful, talking and gesticulating to the voices in his head. “He’s always that happy” Nina said, “but sometimes he walks out into the street in front of cars. That scares me.”
              I saw him later, two miles down the road. He was bopping along, red dreadlocks bouncing about, still carrying the bag he had earlier, and still engaged in the vibrant interactive monologue with his invisible, perhaps even sentient friend, or with God.
              “He’s always that happy.” When my mind goes, if it goes before my body, when it goes, that’s where I want it to go.


but the dentist has reclining chairs

Today at pt a woman was effusing about the Toyota dealership in Littleton. Included in your stay is a wifi lounge, lunch voucher, and a gym. She says she shows up at 11:30, works out, cools down in the lounge, and then has lunch. I think the Camry needs an oil change but now I'm realizing how pathetic my life sounds when a Grand Day Out is at a fucking car dealership.


note for david

Dear David,

I’ve been thinking a lot about that log lodged resting in the current of the Millstream, hoping you’ll go back and spend a bit of time shin-deep in the cold glass water with your camera and your artist eyes. The tenacious green growing from the sturdy stump, both ends clean cut by a power saw, deserve to be celebrated in metaphor and silver.



don't weep for me

I visited my grandparents’ old Willow neighborhood yesterday. The house looks very much the same; dark brown paint, no new buildings or additions, just the house with its screened in porch and the garage. I was surprised to find the bridge across the stream still without railings; just a couple of stacked 8x10s to keep the cars from going off into the drink. It’s still a one-lane bridge, about as rustic as they come.
            The Desidarios, first house on the right, have built a small gathering place between the house and the stream, with chairs and a fire pit. There was nothing more fun than when the Desidarios came up on summer weekends and we were in Willow visiting my grandparents. We rode bikes, swam, and tubed morning until night and it was a precise recipe for long-held perfect summer memories. I was so happy to hear that the house is still in the family and that the kids and grandkids of my childhood summer friends continue to build their own memories.
            Mrs. Toby’s house looked different. More and thicker landscaping, maybe another building? Mrs. Toby was old when I was a kid. Older than my grandparents. She was the only full-timer in the neighborhood on the party line. One ring for us; two for her.
            The Desmond's house seemed lower or smaller to me, and a different style. They were another of the summer families with kids; Bruce and his sister. Bruce was a tough kid. He would get sent home occasionally. He always pumped too high, pulling the foot of our swing set, with its little concrete footings, out of the ground. One time he got his hand caught in one of the chains and ripped a couple of fingernails too short and bled all over everything. The Desmonds had a really cool treehouse, just a partially covered platform on the edge of the dirt road of a country 1-mile oval. There was a nail sticking out that scratched a deep four-inch long groove into my back as I slid down the wall. The scar today looks like something awful happened.
            I learned how to drive on that oval. We had a late-forties Willy’s jeep, a vehicle so awesome it needs its own chapter. My older brother taught me. He was 12 at the time and had been driving a few years. The clutch was stiff but I was a strong kid, and I still remember the magic of the throttle and the feel of the steel start button. Man I wish I had that jeep today.


summer of love, decades of sex

Billy Action was a backgammon and card playing Lothario in Woodstock in the 70s and 80s. Maybe beyond, but I left in ’84. He went out with Gayle, who owned Yink Ink, a company that made hand-painted clothing. Yink was a code name for sex, coined to obscure conversations her parents might overhear. Gayle told me once that she giggled inside every time she heard her mother say the word.
            I can only guess what precipitated these t-shirts, but Gayle had the brilliant idea of printing a few dozen and giving them out to everyone who would be at the weekly softball game. Billy played for Woodstock Wonders, a team sponsored by Albert Grossman, baron of Bearsville. The games were played at the Rec Field late afternoons and weekends.
            The players for both teams and all the fans came to the field that day wearing their shirts covered by jackets. The front “Yes” with the thumbs up was visible. At some cue, everyone took off their jackets and turned around, revealing the “I Slept with Billy Action” side. Even a dog on the field was wearing one. Somewhere in the quag of my closet I have a photograph of the moment. It’s not a very good one, but I’ll dig around and post it when I find it.


i cave

I went into a cave yesterday. I shouldn’t go into caves. I know this about myself. I shouldn’t go into caves because once when my younger son was two he got stuck in one of those horrible plastic tubular playground things that for people like me is more like a catheter to hell. I’ve always been a bit claustrophobic, but that day in the bright blue and red pipette cinched the deal. He was lost and scared, and wouldn’t follow his brother out, but needed me to come in and rescue him. I considered for a moment leaving him there, but I really love that kid, so I did what every mother would do; climbed through the burning fires of polyvinyl chloride damnation to save her child. It may have seemed less dramatic to the onlookers, but they didn’t live it.
            Why did I go into the cave? Because it was big. Bigger than an airplane. Bigger than an elevator. Bigger than any tubular playgound I’d ever seen. I convinced myself that it was the word “cave” that was getting to me. I watched the movie about the cave. There were so many happy people oohing at stalactites and ahhing at stalagmites I was sure I could be one of them. We took a 10-minute trolley ride through the jungle to the mouth of the cave. Which looked like the mouth of a giant claustrophobic-eating monster. I’m sure the happy people thought so too, and in we all went, because we’re brave like that.
            A few hundred feet into the cave I slipped and fell on my ass, banging my elbow and worse, my camera, on the slippery monster-throat walkway. The guide helpfully suggested I be careful, obviously having noticed I was a happy and carefree spelunker with a devil-may-care attitude about the perilousness of the circumstances. “This is me being careful,” I explained, backside wet but otherwise fine. In body.
            In retrospect falling was an astute tactical maneuver. My advice, should you find yourself claustrophobic and in a cave, is to fall down. You will spend the rest of your cave walk worrying only about remaining vertical. When you walk through the room of the cave where the millions of bats are surely sleeping and will not suck your blood or get caught in your hair, and you are gagging from the stench but terrified to let go of the railing even though you just stuck your hand in a fresh glop of guano, you will be too busy to think about your claustrophobia. And you will have me to thank for that, no co-pay, no paperwork.


woodstock writers festival

I went to the first annual Woodstock Writers Festival and all I got was this lousy totebag. Oh, and four days of workshops, readings, and panel discussions with a remarkable and generous group of authors; belly laughs, inspiration, new friends, and great advice.
            Opening night wine and dessert tapas with Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, a book on my to-read list moving closer to the top because who can resist lines like, “I hate hiking in swamps with convicts carrying machetes.”
            Saturday morning Nina and I went to the writing workshop with Abigail Thomas, author of Thinking About Memoir and other books. There was a certain — what — ironic congruity? in sitting at a memoir workshop in our first Woodstock childhood home, now the Woodstock Center for Photography. Our parents owned the old Café Espresso, our living quarters in the apartment upstairs. My sister and I sat in chairs that would have been behind the bar. Huh, whattaya know.
            I missed the reading by Maria Bauer, author of Beyond the Chestnut Tree, a book I read 25 years ago when Maria gave Tony and me a copy as a wedding gift. I lived in a cottage next door to her summer house in Woodstock. It’s my favorite of the places I’ve lived, partly because it was when I first suspected I was not going to die tragically young in a firey crash on my way home from Deanie’s some drunken Quaalude-rippled night. I digress.
        I loved the workshop with Laura Shaine Cunningham because the woman is so god-damned happy. And not just because she is a best-selling author, either. She’s made a deliberate effort to let go of angst and get out of what she called, “writers’ debtors prison.” I sharpen my shiv and dig, even if it’s just to break out of an illusion. One of the exercises was to describe the prior morning.

To do:
One load of laundry
Look at the bills, maybe even pay some
Wake up one Teenager
Leave by noon.
        Coffee. Laundry in. The Teenager is given first call at nine with the hope that he’ll be out of bed by 10:00 with time to do kitchen chores before taking off for the day.
O for two.
Pack. What to wear to a Writers Festival? A tiny cut above my usual slacks and a t-shirt? Two t-shirts? Laundry in dryer. Time is on time’s side. It always is if I sit at the computer before getting my must-dos done. Sucked into e-mail and facebook and now I have an overpowering need to know more about turtles and now it’s an irretrievable hour later and I’m late but at least I’m all schooled up on turtles.

Panel discussion with Dani Shapiro, John Bowers, Marion Winik, and Shalom Auslander. I haven’t read the first two authors, but Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik is a brilliant little collection of essays about 52 people she knew who have died. Shalom Auslander’s book Foreskin’s Lament is nine miles beyond funny. Really fucking pissed off funny. Maddest at god but plenty left over for family too.
Here’s a response to an unremembered audience question.

Shalom: If you want to know what it’s like to be a writer, read The Hunger Artist by Kafka. You live in a cage, you starve, and no one cares.
Marion: Except they drag you out once a year for the Woodstock Writers Festival.
Shalom: Yeah, in a barn in the middle of nowhere.

Go out now and get these books and read them. I’ll wait.
            Next up Martha Frankel on marketing. I hate marketing. Marketing is why I got out of marketing. But Martha makes it sound so fun! and easy! So now I have to learn to pimp myself on facebook, twitter, etc. Now I have to accept everyone who friends me, including that guy who self-publishes vampire porn written in the style of a seven year old which now I see is a brilliant marketing strategy. The hide feature is my friend, and if things get really bad I can block which is to say in Mother Frankel’s words, “He’s dead to me.” I know you’re right Martha but shit.
            The next panel discussion was so good because I hated half of them. Hey eager writers, feeling good, and inspired? It’s time for the Cranky Negative Panel! (Wake up JB, you’re on the stage.) On the left were Bob Wyatt and Shaye Areheart, lovely helpful positive folks who I hope can be paired with different people in the future. The two on the right, married publisher and agent couple, seemed to say, “Hello. We are your barriers to publication. Go dig a hole and bury your book and stop bothering us with your stupid questions.” I loved Bob Wyatt’s riposte after a particularly long and gloomy response by the nattering nabobs of negativism∗ involving the impossibility of ever seeing even one of your vowels in print: “Or, you could land a plane on the Hudson.” Thank you Bob. And thank you Sully.
            I read Chosen By a Horse by Susan Richards by accident, misremembering a book recommended by my sister. I’m not a horse person. I’m not really even an animal person unless it involves heat and side dishes. In Sunday’s writing workshop Susan points out that hers is not a book about horses; it’s a book about grief. It was poignant, funny, sad and uplifting. The book that is. The workshop was excellent. When I am stuck I will go back to minute observations. Speaking of poignancy and all that, why didn’t I guess that I’d spend so much of this festival welled up bordering tears? The audience readers were wonderful and so many of their stories ached. Note on next years fest: bring tissues.
            Sunday night’s event was a reading and Q+A by Julie Powell, hosted by Martha Frankel, author of Hats and Eyeglasses. Julie’s is the I had an idea and I blogged it and someone noticed and I made it into a book and then Hollywood found it and Amy Adams played me and Meryl Streep was in it fairy tale. Julie landed her plane in the Hudson. I’m embarrassed that I have not read nor seen the movie Julie and Julia, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of this event. Martha Frankel is a thoughtful and funny host. I first saw her moderating a panel at the Woodstock Film Festival and thought I would like to have lunch with her sometime, if only she wasn’t such a recluse. For a good time, friend Martha on Facebook. She’s not that choosy and you won’t be sorry. Back to Julie, who has a new book called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession that is maybe a little about her time interning at Fleischer's butcher shop in Kingston, NY. Julie is so damn cute it’s hard to imagine her taking down a side of beef, plus it hardly seems safe for a twelve year old to be waving big knives around, but I do look forward to reading this book. I’m sure it’s not about the meat.
            Did I mention that Ruth Reichl read and answered questions? She did. She was her sweet and funny goddess self. I may write more on this later.
            The next morning was a meet and greet brunch at Joshua’s. I ate, I schmoozed, I took pictures. That’s it for now. Find yourself at the Woodstock Writers Festival next year. The totebags are really nice.

William Safire, for Spiro Agnew




I bet that many of us not in the profession have random medical terms floating in our heads. I can tell an adipo from an adreno and I’d prefer an oscopy over an ectomy any day. I know medical colors too, like cyano, cirrh, and xanth. I remember ovo-, ovi-, ov-. But I didn’t know about oo (egg, ovum) or ooph (ovary, egg-bearing.) Ooph. Oeuf.

Where this is going is that I had an oophorectomy last week. When I first found out I needed one, I thought it sounded kind of fun and cartoony, like I was going to have a small Dr. Suess creature removed from my abdomen. It was less fun that that, but pretty easy as surgeries go.

My friend Donna emailed me, “I could cook you dinner like I'm making for my family tonight but I wonder if you really want a tuna fish sandwich with sweet pickles?” That sounded more like a dish to offer someone who was pregnant. I declined. This recovery is distinctly in the other direction.

I’m fine; please don't bring food, unless they are Rice Krispy Treats made with real Rice Krispies and fresh marshmallows. I like them just-made, butter never margarine, and a little warm, so please plan the baking and driving carefully, especially with all this snow.


the hand

Once when I was about seven we were at the Berg’s house and I watched my first horror movie. The movie was about a pianist, a hand, and a pair of scissors. Or at least that’s what I remember, the terrifying part. The hand crawled across the piano, grasped the scissors, and stabbed the pianist. Why or how or if didn’t matter. It just was, and with help from my brother that hand with its gleaming scissors would become the single most terrifying thought of my childhood. A mere whisper of “the hand” would send me into a spiral of hysteria. I remember sitting with my mother in the bathroom while she whispered, “it’s okay; it’s not real; it’s just a movie; that could never happen” ad nauseum until I fell asleep exhausted in her arms and she would carry me to bed. But my seven-year-old heart knew that hand would come after me some night holding those big scissors to stab me again and again.


birthday wishes

I was going through and clearing out a bunch of crap from my office area the other day and came across a birthday card my grandmother sent to my son Demetri a dozen or so years ago. She was in her early nineties then. He was seven.

Here’s a picture of the front of the card:

She had, no doubt, walked down to the pharmacy at Bradley Meadows to buy it. She might have grabbed a bottle of wine from the liquor store while she was out. She always remembered our birthdays.

Here’s the inside of the card:

In case you can’t read her I’m-Old-and-English-is My-Second-Language-Anyway handwriting, she wrote,
“Dear Dimitri
Gd Mère wish you very happy day for your Birthday —
Good kisses —
Gd Mère"