Monday, June 3, 2013

Taking a Breather After #BEA13

I was at the Book Expo for much of last week covering it for Publishing Perspectives and am still processing everything that I saw, heard, want to read, and don't want to read. In some ways it's like heaven- 4 p.m. rolls around and suddenly it's book happy hour:  cheerful book people offer you wine, chocolate and books. I wish I'd heard more authors speak, but learned a lot from various conferences on things like Twitter, publishing in China (!), middle readers, and more. I also learned that one of the saddest things I've ever seen is what I'll call Remainder Alley-- a gorgeous row of books that didn't sell and who need homes. Wholesalers buy them up and they get a second life at bookstores willing to give them a second chance. I ran into this guy Jim, an eccentric bookseller from Carmine Street who owns The Non-Imperialist and Non-Oppressive Bookstore. This is his secret for offering good prices, and I've been taking advantage of his hunt-and-peck skills set for years. Another personal highlight for me was talking with the great Jane Friedman, multi-decade publishing veteran who's Open Road Media is on course to change eBooks and how we see them forever. She spoke with me and my friend Kathleen for a long time, and I think I'll drum up a feature about her advice for the Indies...
Here's a link to two pieces I wrote, one about the keynote panel and another about a Twitter Master Class. More to come, but in the meantime:
Keynote on the state of the industry: http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/05/as-bookexpo-america-opens-industry-concerns-remain-largely-unchanged/

The Twitter: http://publishingperspectives.com/2013/06/9-tips-from-beas-twitter-for-publishing-master-class/

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Guest Post by Jamie



I just reread this poem that J. wrote a month or so ago. It makes me terribly happy, for a multitude of reasons, and so I share my first guest post. I'm sure the next will be about Star Wars, but for now...


Chess
by Jamie Burton

Oh, Chess, chess 
Oh chess is the best.
But here comes the Pawn, 
who mows the King's lawn
and could go two the first time out.
But when it reaches the end of the board,
Boo! You will be chased about.
But here comes the Knight, he's up for the fight!
And here come the Bishops who will make you do pushups!
And will put a saddle on your Knight for the fight!
And now comes the Rook,
his tip as sharp as a hook.
And oh my, the rook LOVES to cook.
Now comes the Queen, 
who is not just a soft shelled bean.
She is more terrible than a monster with a vampire bat,
for she can run this way and that.
She can go a million spaces, 
and she'll tread on your faces.
And she will never slip because she has no shoelaces.
And here comes the King,
but BING, BANG, ZING!
The Rook goes to A-8, 
and oh my, too late,
checkmate!


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chess in the Park

A month or so back, a piece I wrote about going to the chess circle in Washington Square was picked up by the New York Observer (which thrilled me). It was a lesson in patience to work with an editor who asked a million questions that I thought were clear and obvious, but that was a healthy reminder about how everyone needs an editor, and if they're not getting it, well, something isn't there in some capacity. My dear friend Candace Walsh (who just published a beautiful memoir called Licking the Spoon; I will elaborate on this later) helped me see that through a million questions was the bright light of those hallowed pink pages. But then the essay only ran online, and sayonara went the pink pages, but still! You can read my piece in its entirety [here].

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Catch Up

I've been busy writing. Plus, Underwood is a family name, and so I'm very fond of old Underwood typewriters.
In many ways, I've used this blog as a repository for clips and works in progress. Occasionally, I've let it slip because I get more involved in the sort of writing that pays the bills. In the spirit of pulling all of these loose threads together into one place, I'm going to link to a few of those pieces now. All were published in Publishing Perspectives, and I'm grateful that my editor over there gives me so much leeway in pitching.

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of having the Marco Beghin, the President of Moleskine America, come to my fashion publishing class to discuss mobility in the digital age. The topic was relevant to my class on many fronts. How do the things we carry inform who we are, and how we are changing as a society? My wonderful students asked thoughtful questions, and I culled a feature out of the event for Publishing Perspectives. Read about Marco Beghin and Moleskine [here].

Next up is a feature I wrote about the state of publishing in Australia. Working with editors down under for this story was interesting. Researching my piece I found myself stumbling into some Australian blogs, and I'd see that they're preparing for their summer while we're pulling out our sweaters. Weird! Writers and publishers are taking it upon themselves to drum up support for local writers. They're not ditching the global marketplace, but they're on the ground locally working to build solid publishing houses that are committed to fostering quality from local talent.  Read about the Aussies [here].

Next up, a feature about CoverCake, a new tech company in Silicon Valley that has developed analytics tools exclusively for the publishing industry. Sound kind of dry? I thought so too until I began to realize how complicated it is to market books using the current tools afforded to publishers that were intended more for companies like GM. With CoverCake, publishers can now search the vast haystack of the web and create the most thoughtful campaigns to target their desired readers. Read about CoverCake [here].

Last, but not least, Egypt comes into play with a new self publishing platform called BookBake that-- my goodness-- works in Arabic. How could that not have existed before? I loved writing this because I know nothing about the goings on in publishing in Egypt, and it took a great guy like Ayman Abdel-Rahman to explain it to us over here in America. Go, Egypt! Read about BookBake [here].

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bye, Bye, Nora


Beautiful, inside and out.

What follows is a version of my latest Huffington Post blog entry, which can be found in its entirety  [here]. 


Last night my kid and I rented The Grey, a film I wasn’t sure about showing to him. He’s 9-years-old, and it’s rated R… but he was very enthusiastic about watching guys get eaten by wolves.

Instead, we watched Sleepless in Seattle. At first, he was suspicious about our change of plans. Romance isn’t as sweet as wolves eating people. Then the 8-year-old boy character Jonah busted his dad on a national radio show and found a way to go to New York City by himself to meet his future new mom on the top of the Empire State building. Things got interesting, and he stayed awake to the end.

Nora Ephron’s passing has been written about so eloquently by those who loved her and knew her well. I did not know her, but I know a few things about what made me love her anyway. I've been skeptical about my devotion to the romantic comedy formula, which is as old as time, but realize that Ephron trotted it out brilliantly for a new generation. Her female characters weren't damsels in distress- they were lonely and real, at least to me. The accidental nature of her character’s meetings have fueled the mythology of untold love stories, including my own. What could have just been a happenstance meeting at a party 16 years ago has been mythologized for me into “I met him at a party that I didn’t want to go to.” Oh, and it was pouring rain that night. And I was with my gorgeous single friend Vanessa, and he chose me, and we never looked back.

What does that have to do with Nora Ephron?

After I met Jim, I had a dream that felt like one of those visitation dreams. It was a dream of Raymond DeVantier, a father figure I’d had growing up, and who died in a car crash when I was 21. He was a perfect stand-in dad for my adolescent self—he gave me my first Patti Smith and Bob Dylan albums for my 16th birthday. In the dream, he said, “I tried to get you two together 7 times."  I’d realized that Jim lived in NYC the whole length of my time here, and our apartments had been one block apart, yada yada. Real life Sleepless in Seattle? Who knows, but whether that was a real dream visit from a dead loved one, or the Sleepless in Seattle plotline burned into my unconscious, I do not know. 

The comfort of Ephron’s penultimate love stories have served me well in harder times, and oddly have framed themselves as guilty pleasures. Why guilty? There’s something very breezy about Rom-Coms. They aren’t exactly brain food, just like Cosmopolitan isn’t exactly a grad school thesis. But since I’ve worked at Cosmo I realize that finding a perfect formula and making it look easy is difficult.  Anyway, what the trick to her effervescent and addictive writing is, I cannot exactly say. I think it would shift depending on the day. One day it would be humor, the next, her honesty. I’ve just crossed over the 40 threshold, and remember my sister-in-law telling me I didn’t have to do the pencil test yet. What’s the pencil test, I asked her? When your boobs sag and they can hold a pencil underneath them. She died a few years ago, far too soon, and had her dear, sagging breasts removed before she left our world. I’m lucky to be able to stand here on this earth and do a pencil test. I’m lucky if I can watch my neck change into something I’m not that crazy about, as Ephron did. I hope I have the grace to approach the rest of my days with her same gusto and honesty. I hope her family can keep this in their hearts as they move through these very sad days ahead. For so many of us, she gave us happy endings when it didn’t seem like there were real ones on the horizon. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Closer than Ever, York Theater

My first piece (here) on Huffington Post's Culture channel is a slightly edited version of the following:

I'm not as much of a theater-goer as I'd like to think I am, but when I do make it there, I'm a dream audience member. I fall prey to movie magic, theater magic, music magic, and any other filter put before me that's meant to bend my reality for a spell. Last night a dear friend took me to see the musical revival Closer than Ever at the York Theater at Saint Peter's Church on the Upper East Side. Walk four stories below ground level and there it is, a little jewel box of an old-school off-Broadway New York Theater, that has played host to musicals since the company first opened its doors in 1969. The York Theater Company's founder, Janet Hayes Walker, was also a Broadway star who took a turn in musicals like Damn Yankees and The Music Man before founding her company with a $50 gift from the church rector.

Closer than Ever was written in the late 1980s by the musical team Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, and had its debut downtown in 1989, where it stuck out 312 shows at the Cherry Lane Theater. It's a musical with no dialogue to speak of. Rather, two men and two women sing about love, loss, friendship, exercise (?!), and more, against the musical backdrop of one piano and one stand up bass, whose player also takes one star turn mid-way through the play.

The lyrics in some ways were irreparably dated (back to that exercise number... we're treated to some old Jane Fonda aerobics moves), and the director made some funny choices to update the show. Stick cell phones in their hands for a couple of numbers, and have them rudely text at a restaurant during a first date. Or, stick a Starbucks cup in a guy's hand as he races out of his apartment to head off to work for the day. Not to be picky, but shouldn't that have been a portable thermos? Who leaves their apartment with a paper Starbucks cup?

The players (Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christianne Knoll, and Sal Viviano) were phenomenally strong, literally, both in voice and stamina. Two and a half hours of belting out about everything from infidelity to unrequited love to sharing baby duties to divorce and back again, all without, to my untrained eye, missing a single beat. There was also strong chemistry between the back and forth couples, which is a good thing,  because we were about three feet away from a few wet smackeroos that could have been a disaster. The  audience seemed to hoot and holler it up the most for the "Miss Byrd" number about a saucy office gal who's quiet on the outside but secretly seducing some Super in a Spanish Harlem basement. She was alternately overly perky one second, and convincingly coy the next, all while sharing her story from the seat of a rolling office chair. The same actress took a couple of turns throughout the show with scatting, and that got under my skin and broke voice from the rest of the show. Boo ba doo, etc., etc. Eh. That pet peeve is my problem,  not hers.

The musical is obviously set in New York, thanks to that one specific Spanish Harlem reference, but one can also presume as much from the lyrics about lease propriety following break ups and the closeness of neighbors. Yet, the urban themes of too close for comfort and manic work/ life balance will resonate for everyone from sea to shining sea.

The theater itself seems to be endowed with a brave mission. To nurture the modern musical, and remain a home for revivals... a lofty ambition, n'est pas? I was a kid who happily spent hours in front of Singing in the Rain, Gigi, and The Sound of Music, all squashed in between every Cary Grant or Errol Flynn film I could lay my eyes on, but I might have been unusual in that regard. Point being, even I don't generally choose to find and attend musicals... and I should. If we don't actively seek out these shows once in a while, the subscriber base will expire and so will these theater companies. It's not unlike putting your money where your mouth is and emptying your pockets at your local bookstore rather than on Amazon. It was refreshing to see more than a few younger faces in the aisles, even though we had the pleasure of sitting in front of two quite elegant old-timers who were clearly regulars (both perfectly coiffed with only minor-feathering lipstick, and one in a turban!). Every time a number would near its end, we'd hear an enthusiastic stage whisper rise from behind us, "That was marvelous!" or "That was a wonderful song!" God bless 'em.

I look forward to actively catching more musicals in the next year. I hope to see more of my friend David Clement's up and coming show about the Weathermen, which I saw performed in small bits at the Public Theater a year or so ago. I also consider myself quite lucky to have caught one of the last performances of Once before it left the New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street to head off to its new Broadway home, a setting I've heard is too large for the intimate show (but watch it nab Tony after Tony this weekend; my money's on Once).

Closer than Ever is on show through July 5th at the York Theater.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

Gone, but not forgotten.
Yesterday I chaperoned a bunch of 9 year olds to Coney Island for an end of the school year romp. I've always loved Coney, but finding the words to describe the decrepit beauty of its old boardwalk, rides, and flea markets alude me at this moment. Maybe because I'm still drifting through Patti Smith's description in Just Kids (I swooned in agreement when she said that it always seemed magical to take a subway to the ocean). Pulling into Surf Avenue on the D train, the kids were so excited their heads were about to pop off. I was already feeling like I could duck into an Excedrin commercial.

We had fun, but Jamie had a cold and his inner ear was whispering to him to not go on the new "High Thrill" rides that his friends were going on, for example The Tickler, a candy colored roller coaster with large spinning cars that hold about 8 people. The rides have all been personalized with "Coney Island" graphics, including a fresh rendition of Tillie, the Steeplechase face. I can understand why they've been decorated like that, but it almost has an air of desperate "Please Like Me" appeal. The park has been so sanitized that nary a ghost can be seen from the shuttered Astroland. Now, you enter a big gate not unlike the one leading to Willy Wonka's house. Before you go further, step up to the ticket booth and purchase scannable bracelets or a Luna Card, which will allow you to play the carney games (the bracelet was $26 for four hours of unlimited rides). There's something sad about not being able to impulsively pull out a crumpled dollar bill to give to your kid when he begs you to take a plastic duck fishing. Now you need to anticipate the desire and purchase the card in advance.

I've just been to Six Flags in New Jersey for the first time, and can now say with accuracy that the rides at Coney are similar in their modernity and safety features. Aside from the Cyclone, the grand ole wooden gal who still remains despite encroaching progress, the new rides could be spotted on any boardwalk; the Starbucks of Amusement Parks. Harnesses that hold people in from the shoulders down abound.

Next time we head back, I'll avoid this park altogether and take my money to the Wonder Wheel and the old arcade. I didn't mosey back through that maze because it would have put me down another $30 without batting a lash, and so don't know if the Haunted House remains... does it?

If it weren't for shiny happy faces, the new boardwalk would have depressed the hell out of me. In present company, I didn't sidle up to the freshened up Ruby's. Gone are the old clam bars with the fake foods in the windows and fading paintings (one we reference a lot is a guy with a bubble coming out of his head saying, simply, "Hey Joey!"). Nope. You can find iced coffees with an extra shot of espresso. You wouldn't be slightly afraid to eat the food, its edges draped in ancient grease from fryers. Instead, there are slurpy machines and high-end looking ice cream cones. The storefronts are pristine, and to my mind seem out of place against the backdrop of this slice of New York beachfront. Thank god for Dino (RIP) and his unchanged Wonder Wheel.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Spring 12 Semester

Last night I took my French final, which officially marked the end of my Spring semester. My classes ended last week (Fashion Publishing and Freelance Features), but now I feel like I'm truly done for the summer. This has been hard for me, because as many of you know, the New School has chopped 3 out of 5 of my classes for next year. After much scrambling, and the faith of a new-to-me Department Head in the Eugene Lang Literature Department, I'll be picking up an Intermediate Non-Fiction class in the fall. I'll also be keeping my Fashion Publishing courses, which lean heavily on writing and research, as well as blogging about events around Parsons. Intermediate Non-Fiction is an exciting add, and promises to be quite different from my other courses. Exciting, because I plan on spending the summer reading and revisiting my favorite non-fiction essays and books (what are yours?). Different, because roughly 60% of my New School students were returning to school after years in and out of various careers, and so came to my classes with a wide array of life experiences to contribute to the classroom. It will be new for me to be charging up a room full of, I'm guessing, exclusively 18-20 year olds. Plus, the class is at 8 a.m.-- should I be packing large vessels of coffee for these young bucks?

It's been an honor to be in the company of so many students from all walks of life for the last decade. Several handfuls of students come to mind regularly. Some of them showed up for all of the different courses I taught; others passed through once, but have stayed in touch. I've learned more from these students than I can possibly put into words (ironic, eh?). My life has certainly changed dramatically in the last 10 years,  and so has what I bring to the workshop table.

So, goodbye for now Writing and Media Studies programs at the "New School for Public Engagement"; hello again to Parsons, and a big hello to Eugene Lang Liberal Arts College.

P.S. Just to add to any confusion, all of these departments I'm rattling off fall under the umbrella of the New School, so technically there's no change in who cuts my paycheck. That said, I may still feel like the new girl at school come August.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some are Silver, Some are Gold

Amy would find this funny.
Having an old friend in town for a week was a balm I needed more desperately than I thought possible. Amy Weaver and I go back nearly 20 years [wait for cliche]. How did that happen? One thing I love about Amy (and her sister Jenn, who I've been lucky enough to see in Paris for the last two summers) is that we find the same things funny. Usually, they're born of things that we originally find quite serious. Both were patient, for example, to live with my "sculpture" under our spiral staircase, a cobbled together hat rack of sorts painted in 7 colors and hammered with various wood scraps. What ever happened to that thing? If I were to write a Match.com ad for friends, my dream friends would pretty much come in the package of "the Weaver girls" as they are known as affectionately in my family, both nuclear and extended.

Amy's stories are her own to tell, and so I won't parade her passages before you here, except to say that we've gotten a lot of mileage out of her long ago spell as an art-moving trucker, pushing 18-wheelers across the country... sorry Amy! Who do I deprive myself of these friendships for so long?

Her daughter Alice is the most delicious five year old girl I've ever met. Her flapper haircut and hot pink Eloise nail polish managed to lift my spirits through job uncertainty and tax season. Now I can't stand the thought of wiping away my chipped manicure born of her little hands, which she explained to me was not a manicure, but a pedicure. Despite her love of all things pink, Amy and her husband Bill haven't taught her the difference between a manicure and a pedicure, and that, coupled with her saucy chin-lifted scrunched up funny face tells me the world has another firecracker Weaver girl on its hands, only this time it's under the elegant Dorning moniker. I cried a little bit as I said goodbye on Monday. Walking away from Alice in front of Veselka on 9th Street, I said "Bye, Sweetheart," and for a half a block she shouted over and over again "Bye, Sweetheart! Bye, Sweetheart!" I know I'll see her before too long, but I also know how quickly they change. I'll forever be grateful to draw on her fleeting five year old self, whose Bye Sweethearts still ring loudly in my ears when I need them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Last Decade or So

I slipped in a quick cup of coffee with my friend Mark yesterday in between dropping off Jamie to his cartooning class, and my karate class. Just saying that gives me pause and makes me grateful of the arc of the last decade of my life. Next Saturday says Bye Bye, 30's! Mark is a former student of mine, and seeing him reminds me of the ten years I've put into teaching at the New School. Dropping off Jamie at cartooning reminds me that this is the big year that he's mainstreamed into his general ed class without support of his own teacher. He's won a chess tournament at school, raced through half a dozen Warrior books in a month, gotten to have doggy friends without going to the hospital for asthma attacks.

Reach back a bit further into the last decade and there I am, pregnant and getting surgeries for blood clots that nearly killed me (and Jamie). It's been a decade of taking care of my health in a way that I'd not ever had to think about before, and I marvel at the fact that at the beginning curve of my thirties, I almost died, and here at the end, I'm pretty close to getting my yellow stripe on my blue belt in a traditional karate class. I just wear more padding than other students when I fight, and they all know not to make contact with me beyond light sparring on shins and forearms since I can still bruise wickedly and wouldn't want any internal bleeding. I've managed that, and spiritually belonging to a family run Japanese dojo has been a huge community boom for me.

I've seen New York change so much in the last decade. Bloomberg, in many ways, has made the city nicer. I love our new dedicated bike lines so I can fly down them on my foot-powered scooter (wearing helmet, of course). I celebrate the beautiful High Line and Hudson River Park. On the flip side (and it's as flip side with a thud of a landing) I'm not so crazy about colorful tenements getting ripped down for hotels and luxury condos; not so crazy about NYU reshaping my whole neighborhood, apparently taking their full-on destructo cue from Robert Moses.

I've gone from full-time worker bee to happy freelancer! Writing! Say it again, I'm writing for a living. Hot damn! Freelancing allowed me to live in Paris for two summers in a row, and now I'm in my second semester of studying French at the New School. While I still have a terrible time understanding fast-speaking French natives, I know I could get myself around with a bazillion times more ease than before. And there will be a next time.

There are sad things that came along, too, how could there not be? I miss my father in law and sister in law, deeply, who both fought cancer long and hard in the last years.

On the happier side of the rainbow, I've reconnected with old friends, too, and I cherish these friendships. Some things feel almost too personal and sacred to go on and on about. How I've spent the last decade arm in arm with my love, who will go anywhere with me and do anything for me. So there's that...

Merci beaucoup, sweet thirties!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bye, Bye Jan Berenstain, Soother of Souls

In the wake of Jan Berenstain's death, I  remember how her rollicking bear family ushered me through some tricky parenting moments. I was lucky enough to have a treasure trove of Berenstain Bears books drop into my lap roughly five or six years ago, back when my 8-year-old was still a toddler. A neighbor had cleaned out her kid’s bookshelves. The Berenstain Family charged into my imagination once again after a long, long sabbatical: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Sister and Brother Bear, and eventually “Baby Makes Five." Click over to Publishing Perspectives to read the rest... 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Emily Dickinson Comes to New York

The Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Poet's House in Battery Park has been extended from January 28th to February 18th. I now have a chance to get there before it leaves. I read a lot of Emily Dickinson in college, and was interested for a time in how her poetry was arranged into chapbooks after she died. In one class we studied the arrangements and determined collectively that the organization of the poetry in and of itself impacted the poetry's meaning significantly, so who knows what the heck she really meant?

Around that time, I went to visit her home in Amherst, and was struck by how tiny her bedroom was. In it was a glass case that housed one of her dresses; it hung, ghostly, on a headless mannequin form. From that, one could see how little she was, and up in that room I could imagine that it would become too hot in the summertime, and too cloistered, though after a point I believe this was self-imposed.

The exhibit at the Poet's House showcases "a recipe" (how mysterious!). I'm betting that it's her gingerbread, which she hoisted down to children in a basket from her upstairs window.

Here is my favorite ED piece, which was read by Stingo in the film of Styron's Sophie's Choice:

Ample make this Bed --
Make this Bed with Awe --
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

Be its Mattress straight --
Be its Pillow round --
Let no Sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground --

Monday, January 30, 2012

Dusting Off Poetry

A few months ago I joined the writing community She Writes. Truth be told, navigating another social media site isn't something that I long to extract out of each day, but the pull of the talent, comaraderie, and connections proved to be too much to turn away from. I check in a couple of times a week to find some beautiful new blogs I've never heard of, and eavesdrop on interesting discussions with writers in different circles (I've joined the Essay Writers and Mother Writers groups). One day I saw a call for poetry on a big-hearted website that I'd never heard of before, Everyday Poets. I decided, What the Hell, may as well dust off some old poetry and send it in. What could it hurt? I'm always trying to open new doors in my brain, shake things up, keep things fresh, and somewhere buried in the mess of all this is a long love affair with poetry.

So far, so good! I've had two poems accepted, the first one which ran yesterday (scroll to January 29th to read "My Neighbor"). My Neighbor was written years ago after my Chinese neighbor Chin Lee took an interest in my new family. She's very old, and still wears a Mao jacket. I can't converse with her in words-- we always mime, and hug, and squeeze each other's shoulders. She has adored Jamie since he was a baby, and used to do this thing which initially surprised me--  she took two fingers and slapped his little face repeatedly, but out of him emerged a big grin every single time. We have this connection of utter fondness, but I couldn't tell you much about her other that what I've observed on the street, in the hallway, and for brief glimpses years back, in her tiny studio apartment.

Chin Lee seemed to collect cans for a living, and visited a food bank weekly. Every time she'd return, she'd knock on my door and hand me boxes of crackers and cans of peaches and applesauce. She'd point to Jamie and make noises and smile and then point to the cans, and she'd aggressively push them into my hands, nodding her head. It was so nice, and I was so overwhelmed with new mom status, that often it would bring me to tears.

I couldn't stop thinking about her kindness, and the way we communicated without sharing the same language, and so who knows when, but a poem began to take shape in my mind and then came out, probably at some odd hour of the night. I've been so busy writing for a living, that I've ceased to entertain those more random thoughts that pull together before inextricably forming into a shape. Dusting off old poems from my hard drive has challenged me to see if I can reserve a small bit of my solitary thinking time to find those stories and word threads once again. I thank the editors at Everyday Poets for reigniting the tiny flame of validation I guess I needed to give myself the permission. I think I'll even carve out a small chunk of time to check out the Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Poets House before it leaves in a week or so.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Here Come The Bullies.

This didn't take long. I look at my Mom clock, and it says "Third grade." I consider the old adage "Boys will be boys", and think about how rough play has crossed ever so quietly into bullying territory, until it's so loud it can no longer be ignored. When I first begin examining my kids, say, toddler behavior, I worked to develop my own personal discipline philosophy. A refrain I ran into over and over again was the helpful "Label the action, not the child." So when I hear insults lobbed on the playground from child to child in very personal ways, it's painful to listen to, because the result of this cowardly violence is to attack one's self esteem and make them feel scared.

Take yesterday's "You're stupid!", and in case that wasn't heard, "You're of low-intelligence!", both of which were shouted at my kid by the pitiful ruffian. Forget for a moment that this couldn't be further from the truth; in this context I'll refrain from rattling off incredible grades and test scores that took my breath away, because that's irrelevant: it shouldn't matter either way. In this moment, my child's very character was being labeled in a way that's untrue and unfair. Sadly, I can only guess that the perpetrator's character is regularly debased by his parents. Maybe, or maybe not, one of them says that he is "of low intelligence", because which 8-year-old speaks like that anyway? Why else would cruelty slide off of his young tongue so easily?

Now what happens when the language becomes not just mean, but threatening? Take yesterday's, "If you say you're best friends with Jamie, then I'm going to hurt you!"

Having a conversation with the parents won't make any difference. I've seen their passivity on the playground more times that I can count. These parents allow their 8-year old to watch Friday the 13th films and World Wrestling Federation matches, and I have no idea what video games he's into. If they hear these slights tumble from his mouth, they'll tell him not to say those things, but there is no understood consequence for the behavior. It's accepted, plain and simple.

What should we do in this situation? We work hard to teach Jamie that he's not a victim; rather, the other child has a problem, and in fact we might feel sorry for this kid because clearly he's hearing this abusive language somewhere, whether it's inside the Wrestling ring or on the Disney Channel or out of his parent's mouths. We try to teach our kid to brush things off, to laugh in their faces, to try not to give it any notice... to not show them how much it bothers him... but doesn't he have the right to live in a safe world where his space isn't threatened like this?

For now, I hold my tongue on the school yard. After asking for advice from other parents, and reading articles on the topic, I've crafted a letter that I've sent to the school principal, his teacher, and have cc:d a school counselor who I know very well and trust implicitly. We'll see how this goes.

Let me add that when I posted about this on Facebook asking for advice from friends, I felt tempted to take the post down. If I'm being honest, I felt ashamed of not being able to solve it on my own and make it better. The Band-Aids don't work for these unseen Boo-boos that haunt him the most before he tries to close his eyes at night.  I'm working through this, trying to identify these feelings. I don't want to over think everything, but in the case of children and threats and violence, I don't think you can over react or over think.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Downton Rodent Abbey


We caved at Christmas and got Jamie a pet. Actually, we got him three pets, the Flying Roborovski Sisters. They are Masha (with the spot on her eye), Irena (with the more jagged lines on her back), and Olga (who wears a perfect gray diamond on her back). Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters are a revelation of cuteness. They run all night long on their hamster wheels, so much so that we had to replace the metal wheels in the picture above with the far more expensive "Silent Spinners." I didn't realize at the time that I'd bought the metal wheels with slotted rungs that they were a deathtrap to the Three Sisters. Their little feet could get caught in the rungs, and yikes! I don't even want to think about them getting crushed between the wheel and the metal stand. I thought my initial solution was pretty creative... the paper that you see covering the rungs is actually a thick-grade watercolor paper that I cut into strips and taped onto the inner perimeter. Perfect for making them safe, and easy to replace when they get a bit hamstered-out.

Why hamsters? Allergies, for one. Jamie's incredibly allergic to dogs and cats, though he's possibly growing out of it. They used to give him severe asthma attacks, and now he just gets rashes and welts on his face. Unless he has a cold, and then he still gets asthma. I have hope that he'll continue to age of this. So for him,  the hamsters are ideal because they live in a glass aquarium with a screened lid, so dander doesn't fly out of their cage when they dig and dig in their bedding for jewels like half-eaten sunflower seeds and wooden chew toys. They're too fast to hold and pet, but they'll run through your fingers and take little seeds from your hands. They're easy to travel with in our car (we travel with hamsters now!) and you don't have to walk them. They're very social, and three seems to be the perfect dynamic. They're so small (roughly 3 inches) that we figured 3 dwarfs equals one Teddy Bear hamster. When we first went to visit them at Petco, there were no less than 20 in the cage.  We studied them and were amused by their antics. They crawl all over each other, sit on their haunches when they eat, sleep on their backs and run back and forth and back and forth. They had only one hamster wheel, which is cruel, but I didn't understand that before bringing them home.

When I went back the next day to seal the deal, there were only three left! Strangely, Jim and I had agreed before I left that three was the magic number, and so I scooped up the lot. I brought home a little cage, and we decided it was far too small. They would survive, but a 20 gallon tank gives them more room to run and play, and now, they're quite at home. They love bits of raw cabbage and carrots, and paper towel holders which they promptly pull their nesting in for dark and comfy sleep before chewing holes through it. Fortunately, there's always another roll in the works for when they destroy these.

Their bad neighbors, the nocturnal house mice, taunt them at 9:00 p.m. every night. One will poke his little brown or gray head out from the stove, and run under the table to catch a piece of discarded rice or a random Cheerio. I used to have no reservations about putting out snap traps, and still will for household hygiene, but we're not teeming with them. There may be a couple at this point. Now I see them as the Butler and Footmen to the Royal Roborovski's. The "Upstairs" Sisters get to live in their mansion with their expensive toys, while the "Downstairs" mice have to huddle under the stove, scrounge for scraps, and fear for their lives. It's not quite as juicy as Downton Abbey, but it's a drama that unfolds in our home day by day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

She Writes

A few weeks ago I was prompted to join She Writes by my friend and colleague Kathleen Sweeney. She Writes is a huge online community of (you guessed it) women who write everything from novels to poetry to essays. The number of members, to the best of my knowledge, hovers at 17,000. I've already met some interesting writers, and have joined a few groups: a mother writing group, and an essay writer's group. I've even traveled the road of submitting poetry after spotting a call for entries, and shock of shockers, two poems have been accepted, but more on that later.

I'm excited because today my She Writes blog entry about St. Mark's Bookstore being saved by the community of writers, readers, neighbors is their featured post. Click [here] to take a look. I cross-post many of my NYLF entries over there, but as this was a solicited blog entry I'm parking it over there exclusively...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

We meet de Kooning

The abstract de Kooning that knocked him to his knees
Yesterday we hopped on the F train to hit MOMA for an hour or so before the Willem de Kooning retrospective leaves town in a few days. While I was happy to be able to use my New School ID to skip the entrance line, I was kicking myself for not making it up before the last rush. I'm not one of those people that can experience the full impact of a show when it's very, very crowded. Needless to say, the throngs of visitors made it challenging for Jamie, too. Back to the show!

I've never known much about de Kooning, except that he was from New York and painted abstracts. So I can't imagine a better way to experience a first solid encounter with the artist than with this sweeping retrospective, filled with over 200 pieces gathered from public institutions and private collectors around the world (thanks, David Geffen). Jamie's art teacher Scherezade Garcia, from the Parsons Pre-College Academy (don't you think they could come up with something less lofty to call an art class for 3rd-5th graders?), told me a emphatically and more than once that I should take Jamie to see the show.

Jamie's first New York Abstractionist painting
He's 8 years old, so it was as fun to spin around in circles and knock into people as it was to look at the painting "with four boobies!"  "Look, Mom, more boobies!" Sure enough, de Kooning's Woman series was there, and because I know nothing about his private life, they left me wondering what the story was behind the monster women in his life. Monstrous, twisted faces emerge from abstract nudes, all in a balanced cacophony of color, but nonetheless either frightening or comical, depending on the painting. The galleries kept opening up to other galleries, and when we entered the gallery with the abstracts from the mid-to-late 1960s, I felt I understood why Scherezade wanted Jamie to see the show. They're stunning, and I mean that in the true sense of the word, as it was literally difficult to pull my eyes from one painting to the next. I asked him what he thought about the last gallery, filled with his late paintings, suggesting to him that I thought they looked softer. "It's like he spent his life painting, and then he felt peaceful after he learned how to paint."

Back on the subway platform, we talked about the show, but it took awhile before he could stop using empty adjectives. "It was great... It was grand... It was wonderful..." Me: "But why was it wonderful?" "Because it was grand." "But what did you like about the paintings?" Jamie: "The boobies [insert 8-year-old boy laugh]." "But what else did you like about them?" [How annoying am I? Poor kid.] Finally: "He uses bigger brush strokes than Jackson Pollack, who just splashed the paint." That worked for me (sorry, Mr. Pollack), and made me especially grateful that we'd made the trek.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shanti Ananda

This morning I looked for the faded scar between two fingers on my left hand, and was troubled to not be able to see it. If I pull the skin on the back of my hand tautly, I can at least imagine that it's still there, barely, a centimeter of white to remind me of being 12 or 13, a Plaza Rat hanging around daily on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Shanti Ananda, a sweet boy who I looked up to in an indescribable way when I was between 12 and 16 years old, passed away on December 31st after a sudden brain aneurysm, I learned through old friends on Facebook. That afternoon so many years ago, we'd played a game called bloody knuckles. We each held our hands out, while the other tried to swipe their opponent's hand with a metal comb, right in between their knuckles. I was on the losing end of that particular battle.

I can only speak of knowing Shanti for a small group of clustered (and very intense, formative) years in the early to mid 1980s, years that I believe launched us Plaza Rats into our true selves. His blonde mohawk and Ank necklace would appear on the Plaza every day after school, and everyone would light up. Despite the fact that we were all committing daily, crazy shenanigans together, I always felt safe when he was around. He gave the best hugs; this I remember after 25 years, and let me tell you, I'm sure I needed each and every one of them.

The image that I have seared into my mind that I can contribute to what will surely be a long littany of first and last impressions, is of Shanti strolling down one of the paths that lead to the center monument of the Plaza. There he is, adorned with his exterior palette of teen angst, with one exception; he also exudes a protective light, and his loyalty knows no bounds. If we're scaling the walls of the post office after school, we'll be safe because he's with us. If we're climbing through the tunnels of Heaven and Hell after school, we'll be safe, because Shanti's with us. If I'm sneaking into the Lensic up the fire escape, I'm safe because he's around somewhere; he always was. If Catherine and I are getting picked up from Crapshaw Junior High by older  kids, and Shanti's among them, we're safe because he's there. Thinking back, I think he had a gift for soaking up the burden of others' insecurities with a kind of precious and unconditional love. He listened, and he was a wise counselor.  The cast of characters that surrounded us in that time have left the long lasting memories of a beautiful and struggling lot.

Today is New Year's Day, and I took my son hiking down the Appalachian Trail at the Delaware Water Gap. The scene reminded me intensely of growing up in Santa Fe and taking drives up the mountain to hike at Big and and Little Tesuque. As Jamie and I scaled jagged, mossy rocks, appreciating the sounds of the rushing water and the sun shining, I thought of Shanti. I kept imagining him in his youth, because that's all I knew. He was beautiful and smiling, and his arms were outstretched in the way that I remember them. May you find peace, my old friend, and may your family find comfort in those  in-between spaces that loved ones leave behind when they leave too soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Everlasting Meal

There's one book that's stood out to me in reviews this month, and after reading an excerpt I purchased a few copies to hand out to various extended family members who I still exchange with: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler, is a sort of cookbook, but more a collection of beautifully crafted essays harkening back to her biggest inspiration How to Cook a Wolf by M.K. Fisher, a book that explored rethinking  the meaning of food bounty during times of rationing.

I've only made my way through the first half of the book (hanging off every word), but I can already tell that this will be one of those books I keep nearby and reach for often, just as I do Simplicity From A Monastery Kitchen (which I realize I borrowed from my mom something like 7 years ago)... I have grown to adore this monk who writes about lovage the way others write about love.

For Tamar, first thing's first: boil a pot of water and make it salty. Once you get that going you'll figure out what goes into it. Second: Purchase and roast loads of in-season vegetables at the top of your week. Save all cut stems, onion peels, cores, leafy tops, and other produce castings. Save the water from the vegetables and pasta you boil, and use it as a base for  soups.  Pickle onion peels and beets and toss them on top of frittatas, another great template for re-imagining the cycles of cooking that build on one another. I cook in a pretty judicious way anyhow, and am fairly creative with leftovers, but keeping cooked rice on hand for no other reason to know that someone will, at some point, be hungry, seems quite clever, if not like obvious common sense. Old rice makes the best fried rice, and fried rice is perfect for those odds and ends, and while you're at it, take the old rice/ polenta/ pasta, and make a curry at weeks' end out of the mish-mash. Make these things the center of your meal, and get creative about salads, which of course are not always made from "astronaut bags of lettuce."  I hate making salad, so therefore I don't eat enough of it. However, tonight I grabbed an apple, two little pears, and a sad, spare stalk of celery. I chopped up everything and tossed it with cracked pepper, rosemary vinegar, and good olive oil. To brighten it, I squeezed on it lemon juice and tossed in a handful of chopped parsley. I think Adler would approve of this; even more for saving the vinaigrette which fell to the bottom of the bowl, which will spruce up rice at some point in the next day or so.

So it looks like one of my copies will be hanging back with me. I might replace it with two more to give away before the week is out.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Top of the Empire State

For years, I've found reasons why it's not a good time to take Jamie on top of the Empire State Building. It's too crowded; too expensive; we might run into King Kong; who knows? But last weekend, the opportunity presented itself in a way where everything clicked. It was Friday and Jamie had the day off from school. The weather was warm, and we were two blocks away after catching a matinee of the Muppets. Out came the question I've heard so many times before: "Can we go to the Empire State Building? I was born here, and I've never even been on top of it." Jim and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and I said "Sure, why not?" The look of unbridled joy on my kid's face because he thought he was hearing things-- "She said Yes?" --was worth the hefty ticket price to the 86th floor.

Toward the Southern Tip of Manhattan
Before the ascent, we were greeted by various tour guys trying to sell us tickets for joint bus trips before we had a chance to hit the box office. No, thanks. We were invited to purchase a map so we could know what we were looking at. No, thanks. We know what we're looking at. In short lines I heard several languages, not surprising. We were officially tourists in our own town.

I have been to the top, but not for close to twenty years, if my sketchy memory serves me correctly. The ear-popping trip up the elevator didn't take long at all, and once we were outside, the views were staggering. Visibility was excellent, and we could see up the Hudson to the Palisades, down the island to our block, East 4th Street, which was marked by the relatively new Cooper Square Hotel. We saw every bridge crossing the East River, and the Intrepid perched upon the Hudson. The Hearst Tower was easy to spot with its diagrid triangular facade, and Central Park served up fall's fading colors in a wash of earth tones. The Flatiron Building stood confidently with its narrow facade, where Broadway and 5th Avenue part ways. The archaic-looking wooden water towers speckled the rooftops, daring one to figure out which decade we're in.

Jamie was thrilled that he could poke his hand through the fence and hang it off the building. He spotted things that we hadn't: the Macy's windows we had just walked past; tour buses with people's heads popping out; tiny bicycles. He was so excited that vocalizations brimmed over, sheer joy pouring out of him.

The best part about it, aside from the obvious part of spending the afternoon with my guys on top of the Empire State Building, was looking down on this perfect city, all of its daily imperfections wiped away by a swath of broad sight lines. It's everyone's city to carve out a life as they wish, whether by luck or hard work or simple circumstance, and it can change on a dime from moment to moment, as fast as the clouds' shadows pour across Central Park before trolling up the Hudson. It's a dear old friend that I cling to, and every once it awhile it deserves a proper visit.