The perfect meal

September 13, 2016

A french farm-to-table setting

Many, many years ago, I worked as a bartender on a US and Danish air force base in Greenland–miles away from civilization and one very long treacherous dog sled ride to the nearest Inuit village. Food was functional and almost always thawed. In fact, most foods were brought in on US cargo jets either canned or frozen. There were three restaurants and a chow hall on the base, and the one constant you found on all four menus, for breakfast, lunch and dinner was pork. Pork chops, pork and beans, pork patties, pork bellies, pork sausage, pork meatballs, pork roast…you get the point. The reason for pork wasn’t so much that the Danish love it, or the Americans for that matter, but rather, it freezes better and longer than any other meat, and when you’re shipping rations to the arctic you need something that will last…and last and last and last. And so,  along with 300 other US servicemen and a few civilian employees like myself, I ate so much pork that when I returned home, I swore it off for the rest of my life (OK, save the occasional slice of sausage pizza).

This got me thinking of how impossible it would have been to have a good meal, let alone a perfect meal in that setting. Greenland was remote. And frozen. And lonely. And aside from the extremely rare arctic hare or caribou that was served fresh from the kill, it was slim pickings. Your choice was reheated pork and canned somethingorother. The sad truth is, the same can be said for a huge swath of America, despite our access to better quality, fresh ingredients. It’s so hard to create a meal (and I mean, a real meal) from shoddy, conventional, factory farmed and frozen food stuff, let alone fake food. Do you realize that over half the “cooking” that people think they do includes some form of processed or pre-packaged food (let me open this box of instant potatoes and add water)? And according to a Forbes article, while our obesity rates soar, we spend less time eating and less time cooking than other nations.(1)

You see, I’d been reading Michael Pollan‘s  NYT best-selling “In Defense of Food.” And I was preoccupied by the way we eat. On the one hand, I was horrified that some consider a microwaveable Lean Cuisine to be a healthy meal. On the other, I was intrigued by the simplicity of Pollan’s underlying message: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. But more than this simple message were his “rules” for eating–rules that could bring us back from the wasteland of processed and fake foods we’ve created for ourselves out of convenience, but that have actually removed us from a more real experience of eating. So, what were his rules? They were practical and straightforward things like: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” “Eat at a table,” “Eat slowly,” and of course, “Try not to eat alone” (and a few more).

I figured, if I could achieve as many of these things in one meal, I could essentially create the perfect meal.

And so,  one afternoon,  it began like this: I called my new neighbor and said, “Let’s get together and eat.” I wanted to eat with friends. Doug and I typically don’t do that. We eat with family, which is great. But I wanted to branch out. I also wanted to eat with people who deeply appreciate food like my Italian-American family. That’s hard to find. Most of my American friends get more excited over a craft beer than a fig with feta. I knew that the Lombardos–our new neighbors– would definitely appreciate good food. After all, they own and operate a high-end, award-winning Italian restaurant  in Collingwood. So, as Marisa and I talked about it, we figured let’s just go out. This way, no one would have to cook or clean up. Right?


Nonsense, said her husband. I’ll cook. 

A chef, cooking in my kitchen!? Two thoughts: Lord, what did I do to deserve such luck! And, Lord, help me if I have to prepare food to impress a chef and his family.  As with most gatherings among friends, it’s the collective responsibility of the group to bring a dish. What the hell could I bring? I didn’t feel as though I was up to the task. Sure I know my way around a kitchen. But I’ll never win any awards. What’s more, Shepherd’s pie doesn’t exactly shout “gourmet” or “perfect.” Suddenly, I felt performance anxiety.  I felt as though my “perfect meal” could potentially turn into a perfect disaster.

But that didn’t happen.


Marisa Lombardo, owner of The Artemisian

Try Not to Eat Alone As with all perfect meals, preparation actually begins well in advance. In this case, it began a year prior, when our new neighbors moved across the lake from us. Doug and I would sit out on our back porch, or on the dock, overlooking the lake, lazily watching contractors come and go over the many months it took to renovate the house that faced our backyard. Until one day, in late spring, the new owners finally moved in.  And before I could wrap a bow around a bottle of Spanish Rioja and deliver it to their doorstep, I received a called from Marisa, a total stranger to me at the time, asking if I wanted to join her and a few others for a yoga session on her dock.  Although the yoga never happened–at least not then– that very night she and I and Doug were sipping top shelf whiskey in my kitchen telling our life stories. This was not going to be any average neighbor. And as I secretly rejoiced in that fact, I simultaneously recognized that I was experiencing one of those rare coup de foudre moments that can only be explained by the alignment of stars, or more realistically, shared commonalities between a group of people who hit it off.

The yoga and whiskey were just the beginning. There were impromptu lunches and bike outings with kids; stop ins to bitch about gluten intolerances or work frustrations; recipe sharing, art outings, and one rather successful attempt on her part to teach me how to make real Italian espresso in a macchinetta. And when her husband and Doug were thrown into the mix, talk expanded to travel, motorcycles, grills and how to build an outdoor shower. And thus, the first ingredient in the perfect meal hadn’t exactly been found or bought, rather created from scratch: friendship.

Adding a few others to join in the “perfect meal” was essential too. Jan, Doug’s sister, who is a class or two away from becoming a sommelier is a definite foodie and a regular at all our gatherings. She offered to bring wines that perfectly paired with our meal. Who else would know what goes so well with oysters, pork and pasta but Jan? And Marisa’s and Franco’s long time friends, Juan and Lisa were a must too. I met Juan, who is Spanish, and Lisa, whose family runs a Spanish Imports business, at one of the Lombardo’s parties and we hit it off instantly. The Spanish connection could not be denied (on her annual trip to Spain with her parents when she was 14, Lisa ending up meeting Juan. It was love at first sight and they were married at 19. For those of you who don’t know, my first husband was also a Spaniard. We both have two boys around the same age, and we both love all things Spanish). It’s no wonder they compare friends to food when they say friendship is the spice of life.


Franco Lombardo, owner of Sapori Restaurant, and his daughter

Eat at a Table After some discussion of the menu, we decided to leave the main course to Franco. Wheph. And so, I was off the hook and didn’t have to offer up my crock-pot American Chop Suey.  My marching orders were simple: set the table, make dessert. Easy. I could handle that. In fact, desserts are my speciality. When I was young I spent hours with my grandmother, who was a Pennsylvania Dutch baker, helping her make apple pies, apple dumplings, shoofly pies and funnel cakes in her tiny kitchen in Ambler, PA. We’d load up her stationwagon early in the morning and haul all that goodness down to Union St. in Medford where she and my dad’s second wife Jenifer ran a little bakery called The Upper Crust. Whipping up a fruit tart with a buttery flaky crust was in my genes. And because it was summer, peaches and blueberries were still relatively easy to find at a NJ Farmer’s Market.

Setting a table was also something I divinely enjoyed. There is an art to it, as well as a tradition. The colors, the fabric, the centerpiece, the dishes…I wanted them all to reflect a French provincial farm-to-table feel that was at once elegant and understated. I’d choose a basic blue and white linen tablecloth, blue and white plastic (yes, plastic!) plates on top grainy, dark wood chargers from Sur la Table and a bouquet of wild flowers. On subsequent dinner parties I stole Marisa’s idea of cutting a few sprigs of basil or thyme from my garden and placing them in mason jars.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food The night of our soirée was a Tuesday in July. The table was set, the guest arrived, and Edith Piaf was belting out La Vie en Rose in the background. Franco started us off with fresh oysters and tuna carpaccio with wasabi salsa. We all lingered by him at the island in the kitchen, standing, drinks in hand, scooping up an oyster, biting off a chunk of baguette. Laughing. Chatting. I don’t care how big or exotic your house may be, if you’re a foodie, there’s no other spot for you but the kitchen, near the person cooking. You will stay there the entire time until you’re told to leave, which happens often, right before food is about to be served. I remember my mother  yelling at every Christmas dinner, “Everybody out of the kitchen!” including the adults, and we knew it was only moments before dinner would be served.


The grilled pork belly

The tuna and oysters would have been enough. I would have been completely satisfied. But, it was only the beginning. Following the antipasti, Franco prepared sautéed shrimp & cuttlefish squid ink pasta. He plated and served the pasta for seven adults and seven kids and we finally took our seats at the table. More wine. More talking. And the slurping of the squid ink pasta, which turned our tongues black. At this point, we ate nothing else. Just pasta. In Italy, true tradition is to never serve a “side” of pasta or a meat over a mound of pasta. Rather spaghetti, pasta, risotto and so on are the primi piatti, or first plate. Then the main course, which, in our case (coincidentally), was Pennsylvania Amish pork, is served with a small accompaniment.

Eat slowly. While the photo of the grilled pork belly I’m sharing here exists, it does it no justice. And to say that this one piece of meat changed my perception of pork forever is an understatement. I assure you this dish was so divine it threw me into a state of temporary nirvana so profound and so celestial that I became speechless for moments after I had first tasted it (my eyes may have also rolled back into my head; honestly I don’t remember). I kid you not. Because the second bite was just as mind-blowing as the first. Tender. Mouthwatering. Succulent. Cosmic. Franco grilled the pork out back on our little grill–an outdoor appliance that never cooked up anything fancier than a burger or a dog. He topped it with a light salmorigano sauce of lemon, olive oil, garlic, oregano and fresh parsley. He believes food should be simple. It should speak for itself. Marisa made baby kale and watercress salad with dates, goat milk ricotta, figs and balsamic pearls as a side.

But here’s the question. Would this meal taste as good on its own? Does any food have the ability to taste divine in a complete vacuum?

The answer is complex. While “delicious” food can be and is often prepared, cooked and served by a pro (or not), the experience of the meal can be deeply enhanced when shared with friends who participate in the story of that food. We ate together. We ate slowly. We ate deliberately. We talked about the food. We talked about cooking. We talked about ingredients and farms and animals. By the end of the night, we all knew which ocean the oysters were pulled from, what the pig had eaten, and that the pasta was made with cuttlefish ink and semolina flour imported from a tiny village in Sicily. I want to make it perfectly clear that every part of this meal came with a story.


A summer berry & fruit tart

And just as a storyteller weaves a tale and transports an audience, the perfect meal does the same to those who sit down together and eat it. There’s a symbiotic relationship between people and food, and to make a mental and emotional direct connection to it– where it comes from, how it’s made, what it means to you –is to achieve as close and intimate an experience as you can possibly ever achieve from something you ingest. And, that’s when I realized that, Greenland aside, I had had many perfect meals in my lifetime. I grew up with a family that bred me with a keen sense of food not only as sustenance, but as a story. Our Italian heritage, our identity was connected to nearly every recipe my mother made. My great grandmother’s raviolis. The red gravy a top every Sunday dinner. The Italian cookies that were made on my great-grandmother’s pizzelle iron. If food is love then the perfect meal is the story in which that love is told.

The dishes were not cleared from the table right away. If you are Italian, Spanish or Greek (maybe even French), clearing the table too quickly is sacrilege. Plates remain on the table a long time. This is a distinctly Mediterranean tradition. We pick. We eat more. We eat off someone else’s plate. We take our time. We talk. We drink. We digest. Whether you are right off the boat or third generation Italian-American, these are the kinds of traditions that are not so easy to shake. They last for centuries. Sitting at the table a long time over a good meal is in your blood.

At some point, someone asked for an espresso. I cheated. I whipped up a few in my more modern Nespresso maker, not yet a pro at using the macchinetta. I didn’t know this, but, Italians apparently never order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning. After dinner, you have an espresso. And then you have a Passito Di Pantelleria, which is a sweet dessert wine. Or chocolate.

A slice of  homemade fruit tart isn’t so bad either. The next thing you know, it’s close to midnight and your friends are helping you with the dishes and you’re completely spent. You’ve experienced the perfect meal.


Friends: Tracy Shields, Jan, Juan, Doug, Marisa, Franco and Lisa

I often wonder if the pork they served us in Greenland would have tasted better with friends. I imagine it would.  And yet, there was no story to that pork. No one knew where it came from. In fact, we were so remote, I often imagined that we received our food by way of some humanitarian-like airdrop, where cargo planes would fly overhead and boxes of frozen pork would be dropped by parachute onto the frozen tundra. Actually, we’re not so far off from that imaginary scenario when we go to the grocery store. Where does all that stuff come from? Who knows. Michael Pollan writes that your best hope for real food from a supermarket is around the perimeter. That’s where the produce, the dairy, the meats are. All the aisles in between are processed food airdropped from corporate America.  The best story that comes from a bag of chips is that you located it on sale in aisle seven. I’m not sure that makes for a very great story. Or a great meal.




Remembering Prince, 1958-2016

April 24, 2016

prince_shmI have to say something about Prince’s death because, honestly, I just have to write to feel better about this. And, because, he was probably my first true love. Yeah, I know. That sounds pathetic. I remember when Michael Jackson died and everyone went crazy. People were crying. I thought, “Are you kidding me? You act like you knew the guy…” Well, now I understand.

I’ve cried for three days straight. No, I mean, I’ve sobbed. I had devoted so much fantasy time to that man for a good ten years–I had every single solitary one of his albums, his 45s, his cassettes and his CDs; I knew every song, I could tell you which album each song came from; I had all his song lyrics figured out and in high school, my walls were painted purple with the big EYES from the Purple Rain album; I even lost my virginity to Purple Rain with a kid who I believed was the closest thing I could get to Prince–I devoted so much emotional time to that man,  it only seems natural I would feel this loss, and yet, a part of my identity that took years to build seems to have crumbled away in an instant. That’s a bizarre feeling. For sure.

Untitled-1Aside from my father, Prince was probably the man who influenced me most, good and bad, and fueled a latent nature that was dying to burst forth. Everything I was running away from, everything I wanted to be, everything I couldn’t attain was wrapped up in that man. His lyrics held all the answers for a girl who was clueless and afraid of love and life. What’s more, I think he changed the chemistry of who I was the night I first saw him in concert. As he sat at his piano, screaming The Beautiful Ones, “I gotta know…Is it him or is it me…” Prince reconfigured my DNA that night, and there was no going back. Without him, I couldn’t tell you what I would look like today, what I might have become. I was transformed.

My mother couldn’t figure out the attraction. I think Prince scared her. He was black, he was half naked all the time, he wore frilly clothes like a woman and he sang about masturbation and God and she wasn’t having any of it for her perfect little girl. After I had bought the Controversy album at a record store at the mall, I hung the poster that came with the album in my bedroom closet. If anyone remembers this poster they might see how it could horrify a parent of a 15-year-old girl. It was Prince in black bikini underwear only, standing in a shower with a crucifix hanging on the shower wall. When my mother uncovered it at one point, not long after I had put it up, she told me to take it down. I refused. She told me, “If that ‘thing’ is not gone in three days, I am ripping it down.” I said, “No. It’s my room! You have no right to do that.” She said, “It’s my house.”

I held my ground and left the poster on the wall and, when I came home from school on the third day, the poster was ripped to shreds in a heap on my purple bedroom carpet.

I suppose that story is more telling of my mother than of me or my sentiments for Prince. And yet, there were many more times I would cry over the man. I cried out of frustration when I missed one of his concerts, I cried out of jealousy when I learned he was dating Vanity or some other woman. And I cried just to cry because, when you’re 16, that’s what you do.

And I wasn’t alone. I had a clique of friends that also worshipped the Purple One. We wore fringe and lace, swooshed our hair to one side, wrote letters to God, painted our rooms purple and drew The Sign and those Eyes on all our notebooks along with lyrics, carefully chosen that spoke to us like no parent ever could. We worked diligently trying to uncover all the hidden messages in his albums. When Paisley Park came out, we were hysterical because we thought Prince was dying. And we all wrote in our yearbooks that we were going to DMSR our lives away…

Shortly after graduation my best friend came to visit me in Wildwood where I worked for a summer selling t-shirts. I was so lonely and so missing my old friends that her visit was a godsend. We noted the cherry moon on the night she showed up. It was a sign.

When I was in my 20’s, living in Paris, I lived my life through the Sign of the Times and Batman albums. I drank “pink things” at an American bar called the Violon Dingue with my British friend Karen and we smoked Gauloises and bemoaned living in Paris with zero money. I thought it was a miracle when a boy selling cassettes on the street offered to sell me the Black Album and a bootlegged copy of Crystal Ball that he had clearly made in his parents’ basement—all for a whopping 20 francs. I think I sacrificed a meal and a pack of cigarettes that week. But, it was worth it.  This collection of songs I shared immediately with my other Prince-addicted friend, Kimberly, who was also living in Paris at the time. One night we ended up at club that was promoting an All-Prince night. We had come across one of their paper advertisements in the street—a red heart that said LoveSexy and were convinced the Man would make an appearance. I begged my au pair family to let me have the night off. I took the train into Paris from Fountainbleau met Kim and we stayed out until 7am—until the Metro started running again—dancing and waiting. He never did show, and what’s more my purse was stolen. But, I still have the LoveSexy advert. That’s all that really mattered.

princeI marked the years by albums, and, maybe shortly after Emancipation (ironically), my styles changed and I drifted. Or did I drift away organically? It’s not clear. The impoverished, but spiritually abundant days of Paris were long gone, and the girl who was so averse to growing up, grew up faster than she wanted in a less-than-perfect marriage and a deep struggle within myself to hold on to the woman I wanted to be. I remember one afternoon, living in Madrid with my new husband. I was happy within myself for a moment, in between fighting and a seemingly never ending long string of days where I would cry and rock back and forth wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. I remember putting on Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife, singing at the top of my lungs and dancing around a rather empty Madrid apartment living room that only had a futon and a TV. My husband came in and yelled, “Stop singing, you’re annoying me.”

That was the end of Prince.

I came back briefly during his Musicology period—Call My Name and On the Couch were the throaty, moaning, slow love songs that had first drawn me in and I simply needed to go back. That was 2004. The year my father died and the year I divorced. But, it wasn’t the same. I had changed. Prince’s spirituality imbued with sexuality was the perfect message of inspiration and validation I needed when I was younger, when I believed in those things, but I simply no longer possessed any of that anymore. Letters to God were replaced with the logical promise of science. And as far as my sexuality was concerned, I had spent years devoid of everything Prince told me true love and sexuality should look like. There were no hot nights in bathtubs with candles. My husband never said to me,

“If I was your girlfriend

Would U let me dress U

I mean, help U pick out your clothes…”

I got nothing remotely close to that. And so, I stop believing. In Prince. In the promises of youth. In me.

And that was that.

Until it wasn’t anymore. In 2009 I met Doug. By then, I had been through my fair share of ups and downs, reconnected with my true self, or rather, found my true self, not my fantasy one, and felt the warm glow of aliveness and happiness coming from within and from my children. While I no longer needed an idol to help me form my identity, I was no longer jaded by all the dreams that never came true. Doug and I, when we first met, talked about the fact that we both had Prince posters all over our walls and that he always dug girls who were into Prince because, well, let’s be honest, if Prince did one thing for any true fan, it was to teach them how to fuck. From a man’s perspective I could see how that might be appealing.

But, the truth is, Prince was a distant memory, a larger-than-life figure that gave me so much more than a song to dance to. He taught me how to be free. How to love. How to be my own duality. How to express myself. How to be unique. How to look at the world in all its glory and say, this is beautiful.

When I heard the news that he was dead it came in the form of a text that I only briefly saw. And then another, something about TMZ reporting it and it can’t be confirmed. I froze. I was at my computer, just off a 2-hour conference call. I went right on to Facebook and saw the posts blowing up my newsfeed. I called one of my old high schools friends right away and just kept saying, “No, no, no, no, no…It can’t be…” We were both crying. Holding on to the possibility that Prince not remotely capable of dying.

I looked at the date. And I knew.

Ironically, or coincidentally, both my father and Prince died at age 57. And ironically, or coincidentally, they both died on the same date. This is significant. There had always been a mystique about the world for me–an innocent belief that the universe aligns certain major events in your life mysteriously–as if someone behind a curtain is trying to tell you something–I may be invisible but there’s a purpose and a plan, and I’m going to drop little clues to keep you guessing. I stopped believing in that for a very long time, but in that very moment of reconciling Prince’s passing, I knew. It was a gentle reminder that the world is still a mystery and I need to keep my eyes open for signs.

Thank you, Prince. Thank you. For a lifetime of helping to build a girl into a woman. That’s a pretty big feat for such a little guy.

best-prince-songs-5I read today that Prince’s remains were cremated. And that reports of his death were that he may have overdosed on percocets. To me, those are crazy hard facts to hear. They don’t compute. They bring me back to the girl with the ripped to shreds poster on her bedroom floor. Crying because it just doesn’t make sense.

One of my homegirls sent me a poignant quote that sums up exactly how I feel about Prince’s death and why it’s possible I still feel a bit lost.

Prince was so utterly, effortlessly enshrouded in mystique that he seemed other-than-human, to the point where mortality never figured into our calculations.—Vanity Fair

Rest in peace. Nothing compares to you.

Making peace with Madrid; exploring the barrios

August 3, 2015

Like a defiant, self-absorbed bad boy who refuses to follow the rules, Madrid has always seemed to be wrapped up in a sort of Bacchian narcissism that’s not entirely interested in you unless you go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And that typically means partying all night, until seven in the morning, drinking pacharáns and grazing tapas. Unfortunately, I go to bed at eight (and don’t drink much), which makes it rather difficult for me and Madrid to find common ground, let alone get to know each other more intimately.

But try I do. And, as with any strained familial relationship, I visit each year, with slight reservation, always trying to see the good, for the sake of getting along.

Why I try so hard is simple: it’s the home of my kids’ grandparents. And if it weren’t for them, whom I love dearly, Madrid and I would have parted ways back in 1997, when I packed my bags and said, good riddance.

I used to live in Vallecas on calle Monte Igueldo when I was first married. We lived in a two-bedroom piso on the forth floor of an apartment building with no heat or hot water due to an empty butane tank that took a good two months for the butane company to fill. It was December and it was cold as hell. It even snowed.  I used to percolate hot water in my coffee machine (we did have electricity) and mix it with a bit of cold water so that I could wash myself. We were so broke that McDonald’s was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Poverty gave me a very limited and rather working-class understanding of the city.  I knew key tourist spots that you could visit for free–the Plaza Mayor, where Americans and Brits would sit at cafes that lined the inner courtyard, the Retiro, Madrid’s version of “Central Park,” the Rastro, a huge Sunday flea market in Lavapies, and Casa de Campo–another big green space that includes a pool, tennis courts, and a park. But other than that, I worked every day as an English teacher and commuted with the throngs of Madrileños, heading to Recoletos, up the Castellano or other parts of the city. And because I had no set location, no office or classroom–I took an English teaching job wherever one was offered–I probably spent more time underground than above it. Pair that with a hubby who didn’t exactly have friends that I could relate to or socialize with (he and his childhood friends would meet once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons, or drink at Irish pubs). And so, I never experienced the deeper Spanish roots of the city–or found any of those unwritten-about places that are not discovered, per se, but shared like a secret, among friends.

I think I may have actually said, me cago en la leche, when I finally left Madrid but who knows.

Yet, I keep coming back. As often as I can. And if I am to be brutally honest, I have to admit that it may be partly for selfish reasons. There are, after all, the warm and embracing Spanish people. And the amazing food. And the dry, desert climate I love so much.  The European experience is well-preserved in Spain. And Madrid, itself, while lacking in aesthetics, has the potential for deeper exploration. And so, each time I come here, I have the best intentions: to see a side of Madrid I never knew, overlook our rocky past, and once and for all learn to love this untamed rebel.


Last year, was a giant leap in that direction. I finally decided to rent an apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana as opposed to my usual– staying in Vallecas with my in-laws. What a difference!

We were able to explore more of the center instead of just taking the train in for a few hours. We were free to dine out at night–though it kills me to miss anything my mother-in-law cooks. And we were able to connect a little more directly with the vibe of Madrid, as we were right there in the heart of the city, living la vida, as opposed to being insulated in a touristy hotel, or isolated in an outer barrio.

Foregoing a hotel to stay in one of the new-style super modern luxury apartments has other benefits too. There’s far more space for less money, it’s far more modern than any hotel in Madrid (with the exception of Only You a sleek, modern hotel at $350 a night, or  Oscar, in the gayborhood, which is beautiful, including the naked men on the walls, but not the best spot for two teen boys and their mum; basically a sex hotel in Chueca, easily identified by the banner over it’s front door “Do You Want to Sleep With Me?”) Leon II, Madrid

Check out Spain Select. They offer fully-furnished two, three and four bedroom luxury apartments in the heart of Madrid. Ours this year is a two bedroom, two bath apartment with a fully equipped kitchen (including washer and dryer),  living room and views galore for the price of € 135 (that’s roughly $150 a night based on the exchange rate on 7/21/15). It’s located on Calle Leon on a quieter street than the Plaza Santa Ana, which can be a party plaza.

Keep in mind, normal hotel rooms in Madrid are small. So, if you’re traveling with two rather large teenagers, or children in general, you’d most likely need two rooms or a suite. Apartments solve that problem. Of course, you will have to cover your own bed. But, I think I can handle that.


Years ago, I would do my usual loop around the center: Sol, then the Plaza Mayor, a little of the Gran Via, Atocha, Retiro, maybe the royal palace, and that was pretty much it. This trip is all about branching out. And if you’re no stranger to Madrid, my guess is you already know about this gems.

Malasaña: I have since discovered the hipster Malasaña district, with pleasant delight, never knowing it existed. Duh. With cool cafes like La Bicicleta, that offers amazing coffee and French croissants, and a pretty well thought-out “workspace” (tables have drawers with keys so that you can leave your laptop locked up without losing your space when you go to the W/C), and Lolina Vintage Cafe, a thoroughly mesmerizing cafe popping with color and design (and a kind of quirky menu), it’s hard to resist this bohemian, vibrant district. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo is its center and it has great vintage and trendy clothing shops, fabulous bars and hip cafes.  Use metro Tribunal.

Huertas: This year, we will be staying in the Huertas neighborhood, which is the literary quarter:

Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas was once home to prominent literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them. Calle Huertas itself is inlaid with quotes from celebrated authors, street names pay homage to them, and second-hand bookshops pervade. neighborhood, everything becomes a little more cramped and slightly less refined, and takes on more of an underground feel. Live music is at the heart of Huertas: by night, its subdued bars are ideal for meeting friends, sipping cocktails, and chatting quietly while enjoying jazz or singer-songwriter performances. –TripAdvisor

Be sure to stroll down the narrow calle de las Huertas, which has the Plaza de Angel and Plaza Santa Ana on one end, and the Paseo del Prado on the other.  This area is also known for its jazz clubs, live music venues like Cafe Central, neighborhood bookstores, The Teatro Español, and yes, more cafes and restaurants. Best people-watching spot: an outdoor cafe on the Plaza Santa Ana.

La Latina: 

While I’ve known about La Latina for quite a while (it is, after all where the Palacio Royal and a part of Plaza Mayor are located), I have never explored it as thoroughly as I’d like, nor have I done so knowing its history. La Latina is the oldest quarter in Madrid, and one of the most beautiful. It is here you will find the best concentration of tapas bars, including Café Bar DelicCasa Lucas, and Casa Lucio, the latter two located on calle Cava Baja, one of the oldest streets in Madrid and a popular cafe street in La Latina. Interestingly, the Cava Baja (and its twin street, the Cava Alta) were named after caves or “moats” that allowed subterranean access to Christians and Moors who could enter and exit the city even when the doors of the walled city were closed. In later years, merchants who would come to the city to trade would stay on these streets, which were lined with inns and taverns. 

Also in La Latina is Madrid’s oldest street, the calle de Grafal, which, according to historians, dates back to 1190. But stick to the calles Cava Alta and Cava Baja where all the action is. And only long after dark.

La Latina’s main squares are the Plaza La Cebada and Plaza La Paja. And you can also find the Rastro, a huge flea market open on Sundays in La Latina. 

To read more about Madrid’s neighborhoods, TripAdvisor has a great page devoted to them.




35 years of journal writing

June 17, 2014

journalI have been writing in a journal since 1979, since I was 11-years old. This photo marks 35 years of writing and showcases over 105 journals. It does not include the years I wrote online, the short stories I wrote and ultimately published, the blogs I wrote or the myriad notes I saved. Outside the frame of this photo, but on the shelf, there is a pile of smaller journals that were unnumbered and thus, left out of the picture.

Like a long road, or a straight line that pushes past a horizon with no end in sight,  these journals move forward in time along with me. They are how I tell time. They are time. They are me.

The very first binding you see is where I met one of my best friends with whom I am still very close. I was in 6th grade. In 1989, I lived in Paris. In 1990, I bartended in Greenland. In 1997, I met and married my first husband and lived in Spain. In 1998 my son Daniel was born. In 2000, Julien was born. In 2004, my father died, I graduated college and I divorced. In 2007, I quit smoking ( for the second and final time). In 2008, the economy crashed. In 2009, I met Doug.  In these journals exist every broken heart I’ve ever had, every best friend, every mediocre friend,  every major event, and a gazillion minor events. My Prince phase, my Paris phase, my speak-with-a-British-accent/Spinal Tap phase, my sex phase, my I-want-to-be-a-nun-phase, my travel agent phase, my travel writing phase, my waitress phase, my ignore-all-responsibilities-and-take-off-to-London phase, my mommy phase, my college phase, my grad school phase, my corporate shareholder phase. If I slept with you, you’re in these journals. If I partied with you, you’re in these journals. If I loved you, you’re in these journals. If I worked with you and found you any bit entertaining, you’re in these journals. If I cried on your shoulder, or begged you to stay, or hated your fucking guts, you’re in these journals.

I made it to Volume 100 in 2010. That year, my interest in journal writing waned and I didn’t write much. I thought I’d accomplished all my goals and there was nothing more to write. If I wrote at all it was online and it was basically me logging every morsel of food that went into my body. In OCD fashion, I tracked breakfast, lunch, dinner, exercise, vitamins, water intake, sex, periods, moods, and how much caffeine or chocolate I allowed myself on any give day. But when I noticed myself getting sicker and depressed, I thought it might help if I gave up the tracking and went back to actually writing in a hard bound journal. So, by 2013, I cracked open the spine of Volume 103 and started writing at my desk again. I felt more me. 

I’m not one to live in the past, although, with these journals, it’s very hard for me to escape my past. That can be bitter-sweet. If I forgot where we had Christmas dinner in 2009 and with whom, I just have to look it up. Voila. The journals are all dated and numbered and memorable dates are easy to find. If I want to laugh again about a trip I took, it’s there. If I want to look back and read silly things my kids said when they were toddlers, it’s there. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed reading early grade school journal entries with friends. The drawback is that sometimes–most of the time– they dredge up the old me. Old insecurities, old hopes and fears, crushed dreams. Things I’ve long overcome or given up. But, things that, nevertheless, make me feel sorry for the girl who wrote them. She never vanishes; she never grows up. She’s always looking up and out of the pages at me with this arrogance that I no longer possess. And I think, what the hell is up with you? You’re such a fuck up. You’re making all these stupid mistakes. You’re stuck, and you don’t even know it.

And no matter how hard I try,  I can’t  help her.

And since she can’t help herself. It’s frustrating reading.

But I too am stuck. Unlike others, who leave no trace of the guy or girl they used to be, and who can freely choose to rewrite their history with bold new assuredness (Sure, I was always confident), I cannot. I need only to flip to Volume 26, 36, 57, 99 to read, “I have failed,” and I am quickly reminded that there is no rewriting the past. The presumptuous, foolish, imperfectly charming  young girl of these journals is here to stay. If anything comforts me it’s the thought that I created her, separate from myself. And like a flesh and blood character in a novel, you can read about her and she exists. And when you’re sick of her, you can close the book and get back to your real life.

But I guess, with the exception of my two sons, she really is one of my greatest accomplishments. The girl of my journals. And while she only takes up such a small amount of shelf space in my house, she represents my near entire existence on this planet. And much like when we’re cremated, and the entirety of who we are, in the end,  fits into a space no bigger than a shoe box, so too does she. Small. Contained. Alive.

For now, my time line moves onward. The pages fill. My new goal is to get to Volume 2oo. Or at least fill up the rest of the space on the shelf. I figure it should take me another 30 years. That puts me at 75-years-old. That’s enough. By then I would hope that that girl will have grown up and that she will no longer summon in me pity and a sense of helplessness, but rather, joy and pride in knowing that she made something of her life.

I only have 95 journals left to get there.

Rail trip across France, Spain

May 23, 2014

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

What it Means to Be a Mom

May 16, 2013

Untitled-1The quintessential highs and lows of being a parent and the flux of emotions that a mother may experience with regard to her children tend to happen over months, weeks, even days. Until you have a teenager. Then, they tend to occur by the hour.


As Doug and I came in from dinner at La Campagnola, at exactly 6:58pm, I saw my son Julien in the dark, waiting by the door to be let in. I quickly apologized for not being home on time to let him in, although he usually gets in a little after seven on a Tuesday, so I didn’t think I’d be late. He smiled and said, “That’s OK, Mom.” And yet,  I still felt bad for not being home. “Were you waiting long?”

“Twenty minutes!” he said, with so much emphasis as if twenty minutes were actually 20 days. Ugh. I hugged him and apologized again. After we were inside, I quickly turned to him and said, “Where’s your brother?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”


“Well, what do you mean you don’t know where Dani is? It’s seven at night. Wasn’t he over your dad’s with you?” I am divorced and practically remarried, and on Tuesdays my kids go to their father’s until seven. At seven, on the dot, they return home to me. Every week.

“No, he never came home.”

My head grew hot. It was seven at night. That doesn’t make sense.

Usually, Dani comes home on the late bus at 4:30pm and comes here. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t even go to his father’s on Tuesdays.

“Well, did he tell your dad where he was?”

“Yes, he called around 3:30 and let him know he had to do something with the camera club, after school.”

That made me feel slightly better. And yet, that usually meant he would be taking the late bus home. He’s never stayed at school past 4:30, save during soccer season. Despite the fact that he’s been a Freshman for a few months, I still sometimes feel like I have no idea what’s going on. I scurried and made a few calls. I called Dani’s cell and it rang and rang, then went to voicemail. I texted. Twice. “Where the heck are you?” I called their father and asked him to tell me exactly what Dani had said when he spoke to him. Just that he was with the camera club for something happening after school. Well, how long after school? I wanted details and no one could give them to me. And then, I called Dani’s cell again, only this time, it went immediately to voicemail. As if someone turned off the phone, or it went dead.

My stomach took a plunge, and yet, I was trying not to panic simply based on technology. Cell phones fail from time to time. Right? But, oh, the stock we set in them.

“Come on, Julien, we’re going to the school.

It was not like Dani to not contact me or text me or simply not let me know where he was. And yet, it was Dani. He was prone to forgetfulness. I tried to stay calm and not over-react but a mother sometimes can’t help herself. She needs to know where her kids are at all times. Hell, in the span of two months the news reported nothing other than children being abducted.  While I drove, I had Julien search through his list of contacts. Anyone who Dani might be hanging out with. Julien diligently put in a few calls, sent a few text, but no one responded.

Once at the school, we walked through the halls of Shawnee, stopping people along the way. “Excuse me, is there any camera club event going on?” The response was inevitably, “Not that I know of. Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes, my son.”

I always feel so pathetic when I say that. Like I’ve lost my keys, or my purse. Like I can’t keep track of my things. And then, the mommy-guilt kicks in, and the negative self-talk takes over…What mother loses her kid? A bad mother, that’s who. I should have paid more attention to who he was hanging around with. I don’t even know the names or phone numbers of any of his friends. What an idiot I am.

After about ten minutes of self-degrading and worry, the logical brain takes over. I decide that maybe the camera club is filming or taking pictures of another event. There’s several going on. It’s just a matter of which one. I eventually make my way to an event in the auditorium. A pinning ceremony. I scan the crowd, searching for that young person who is essentially an extension of myself. When you cannot find your child, lost in a crowd, it’s as if you’ve lost a limb.  Lo and behold, there he is behind a video camera propped on a tripod, filming a couple of giddily happy girls on a stage receiving their pins. His techie friends are dispersed around him. I exhale at that moment of instinctual recognition of my child; he is safe and good and alive—it’s the kind of moment that changes a mother’s chemistry, like breastfeeding. At the very moment the infant latches on there’s a hormonal flood within the mother, a wash of oxytocin, which tells her, “this is pure pleasure,” despite the cracked and bleeding nipples. Ah, bonding.

I wanted to kill him.


Julien and I walked down to the front row, and sat right behind where he was working. I zoomed in on the back of his head like a hawk about to dive for her prey, a scowl on my face. I could sense his uneasiness. He knew I was angry as hell. I whispered, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick. Why on earth didn’t you call me?” In secret I was thinking, Boys! How can they be so insensitive? So in their own world that they never in a million years realize that they have the power to rip your heart to shreds.

“But, I did contact you. I sent you a text!” he said, pleading.

I reached into my pocket and looked at my phone. Nothing.

“Nothing.” I said.

He quickly pulled out his and showed me the text he wrote, slightly redeeming himself. There it was, at 3:30 p.m. It had never been sent from within the auditorium.


“Look, enough with the texts, OK. You need to talk to me and I need to hear your voice. You can’t just assume I’ve got your message…” Secretly, I’m thinking, You owe me that much, don’t you think? And then, kids are so damn selfish. I’m going to go on Facebook and make a blanket statement that people should not EVER have them if they want to keep their sanity. I remember my father saying this to me and I never quite understood what he meant. I do now.


We drove home quietly. After an hour of decompression, and me doing the usual meditative ritual of going onto the computer and reading mindless posts, trying to get my sanity back, Dani came upstairs, almost as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, mom, did you see this video that’s going around now? Oh my God, You’ll love it.”

“I don’t know, show me.”

He sat on my lap. Yes, my almost 15-year-old son who weighs more than 150 pounds at 5’8″ still sits on my lap, much like I did with my own grandfather well into my 20’s, even when he’d yell, “You’re going to break my legs! Get off of me.” It runs in our family. This is how we love.

He put the youtube video “To This Day” on, and we watched. It’s about bullying. I had seen it before, but I sat still, and watched it again. It’s one of those videos that has gone viral and every time you see it, you can’t help but tear up.

When it was over he moved across the room and sat opposite me and said how much he loved this video. His eyes were red and wet with tears. It wasn’t often that I saw him cry anymore, like he used to, when he was little.

“Maybe because you were bullied as a child, ” I said, and my heart ached a little remembering some of the horrible things kids did to him because he was different. Chasing him on their bikes, threatening to beat him up, hitting him, laughing at him. In seventh grade he came to me once, when I asked him why he never hangs out with anyone anymore and said, “I have no friends, mom. None. No one likes me.” A mother is paralyzed when she hears this kind of stuff. How is it possible that your kid has no friends? Don’t others see what you see? How can I make it better, you think. How can I make people love him.

You can’t. You can only love your child and by virtue of that love, you can give him strength.

“Who me?” he said.  “Nah. I never cared about people making fun of me. I never believed them. I like myself too much.”

He smiled.

We sat there for a minute. I guess he was right. He never really cared if kids picked on him. Or if he had no friends. He always let stuff roll right off of him. He had a rich imagination that could keep him busy for hours. I always envied him for that. I always depended too much on the opinions of others for my self-worth. I was proud that he did not make the same mistake I did.

“Well, something in this video must have touched you,” I said, not needing to point out that his eyes were as wet as mine.

I thought for sure he would say the usual, that he felt sorry for kids that had to go through a life of bullying. I, myself, was bullied as a kid too. Spit balls in the hair, called a dog, tripped, kicked, spit on. The whole shebang. I had told the story to both my kids many times, and how it strengthened me and made the person I am today. Whether they were listening or not, wasn’t exactly the point. It was in the telling. In hoping to give my kids the necessary tools to deal with whatever came their way. In fact, in the video, there’s a segment about a girl who was bullied as a kid and grows up to be a woman who doesn’t believe in herself and still thinks she’s ugly because of a mark on her face. And yet, despite having kids of her own, who love her, she is insecure.


I turned to Dani, “What do you think it was that touched you so much, then?”

“I guess,” he said, his eyes growing a little redder, “I loved the part most when they say, ‘..and they’ll never understand that she’s raising two kids whose definition of the word beauty begins with “mom.'”

Mom. A word that means beauty. How could it be? How could it not be? I guess he was listening.

I hugged him tightly, and told him I loved him. He smiled, said he loved me too, and off he went. Back into his world of being a boy.

If you haven’t already, watch the video.


24 hours in Paris

July 17, 2012

If you see one city in Europe in your lifetime, let it be Paris. It’s one  of those places that you can continue to discover and rediscover for years. Ten days, two weeks, a month is often not enough. But,  if you only have 24 hours for the City of Lights the below itinerary might be just enough to give you a decent feel for what Paris has to offer.

In 1989 I lived there, in a little flat in Les Halles and got to know the city quite well. It took me 23 years to get back and sadly, I only had one day. Here was my list of mandatory stops…

Arriving at night

  • 7PM Arrival by train at the Gare du Nord (nearly all trains from the north, including ones from Charles du Gaulle airport lead to Gare du Nord. It’s also the most central of the stations).
  • 7:25 Follow signs for the Metro (M) and take the dark purple/brown line (#4) to Les Halles. From Les Halles, connect underground and and get off at the Tuilleries.
  • 8PM Drop your bags off at the Hotel Lotti on the rue Castiglione where you’ll be staying (go ahead, splurge. It’s only one night). Le Lotti is a fabulous, old world, (expensive) hotel where you can truly get a sense of what it must have felt like to live in Paris circa 1792. We opted for the bigger room with sliding doors in between a bedroom and a sitting room with a writing desk. How can you spend a night in Paris without waking up to a writing desk, especially when it overlooks the street?!
  • 8:30 Freshen up and then head out, down the rue St. Honore. Aside from all the luxury window shopping you’ll want to do (Hello haute couture!), you’ll need to eat. So, grab a typical cafe-style dinner at Le Coupe D’Or. Le thé glacé est magnifique!
  • 9:30 The Louvre. Head back toward the rue du Rivoli and cross the bridge. You may need a map; my own recollection of how to get there is a bit sketchy. Street signs for major attractions are everywhere. Then again, wandering around Paris is half the fun.
  • 9:45 They don’t call Paris the city of lights for nothing. If you see any part of Paris by night, let it be the Tuilleries, the Louvre, the Place du la Concorde  and the Palais Royal. On a clear night, you can also see (gasp!) the Eiffel Tower from this location.
  • 10:30 Walk north along the Seine (heading toward Notre Dame), past the Pont Neuf (possibly the most famous bridge in Paris) and back into Les Halles for a taste of the more flirty, and dirty side of Paris. By this point, you should have walked off the steak frites you had for dinner. It’s time to try a chocolate crepe. No need to sit unless you need a rest. You can buy crepes from the street vendors in Les Halles (ancient markets). While here, check out the hundreds of cafes, the Georges Pompidou center of modern art and the Saint Eustache, one of the oldest churches in Paris (Mozart’s mother’s funeral took place there). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sound of street musicians around this area.
  • 11:30 You’re sleepy! Start heading back to your hotel. If you can, try to take the rue de 4 fils and then cut through Place du Vendome for one last spectacular site.
  • Midnight. If you’re anything like me, this is way past your bedtime. Go to sleep! You’re getting up early tomorrow.

Your One Day in Paris

  • 7AM Wake up, throw something on and go downstairs to the restaurant and order a coffee. Don’t bother with room service. Bring the coffee back to your room and do something truly, deeply Parisian. WRITE at that little desk and sip your cafe au lait.
  • 8AM After you wake and pack up your bags and head out, stop along the rue de Rivoli and have breakfast. Definitely order a croissant, and of course, another coffee (don’t worry, you’ll detox later), and try a plat du jamon (ham).
  • 9:30 Take the Metro (there are choices all up and down the rue de Rivoli) and head to St. Michel. Last night was the rive droit, today, it’s the rive gauche (left bank). Saint Michel is the indisputable heart of the left bank.
  • 11AM Head down the quai toward Notre Dame. Depending on time of year and hour of arrival, you could be waiting in a long line to get in, or you could wander through the doors as though you were the only tourist in town. Before you hit the famous church, you will most likely pass the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. This is a must stop. Go in. Buy something. The history is astounding, especially if you love to read. You’d be amazed at who waltzed through those doors and hung out upstairs amid the bookshelves.
  • 12:45 Give yourself time to wander back through the Latin Quarter, back to rue Saint Michel and all the way down the Boulevard Saint Germain. Before you leave the area of Saint Germain des Pres, you absolutely must have lunch (or at least a coffee–yes, another) at the Cafe Deux Magots. Hemingway, Fitgerald, Dororthy Parker, Picasso and Gertrude Stein were all regulars. And no matter what the season, I suggest eating outside and people watching. Another Parisian custom you can check off your list.
  • 2PM Keep walking down the Boulevard Saint Germain and head toward Montparnasse. You should be able to see the tower in front of you. If your feet hurt at this point, take a little detour to the left. The beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg is hidden a few streets back. The Palais Luxumbourg is worth the detour. At certain spots within the garden you can see the Pantheon.
  • 3pm In Montparnasse you can catch a glimpse of two more mythic cafes: La Rotonde and Le Dome, the latter of which is now a seafood restaurant. In the 1920’s, however, they were the stomping ground of some of the most famous American Expatriate writers and artists.
  • 3:30 The clock is ticking! Hop on the Metro and head to the Eiffel Tower. Any stop near “Le Tour Eifel” will do, but I believe Bir-Hakeim is your best choice from Montparnasse. Get out of the metro, turn a corner or two, and Voila! One of the most legendary edifices on the planet.
  • 4:30 From the Eiffel Tower I suggest taking a taxi to Sacre Coeur by way of the Arc du Triomphe.  No taxi driver in his right mind will want to go around the Arc because it’s a traffic nightmare. But plead with him (S’il vous plait!)  You can’t say you’ve really experienced Paris unless you’ve survived the insane traffic jams around the Arc. And besides, you get to go down the Champs Elysees. Then again, you’re short on time. You might need to save the insanity for a future visit.
  • 5PM Your tour of Paris isn’t complete until you’ve wandered around the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to the little neighborhood of Montmartre. Unfortunately, you can’t take your time. But you do have enough to spare for a quick dinner on the square. Again, sit outside and watch all the artists selling their art and painting. If you’re lucky, you’ll get harassed in French for taking a picture without consent.
  • 5:45 Take the long walk down the infamous steps of Montmartre until you’re in Pigalle (the red light district). And while you most likely can’t catch a show, you can at least pass by the Moulin Rouge right on the Boulevard de Clichy.  Again, watch that you don’t snap any photos around this area. You could get your camera snatched.
  • 6PM Catch a taxi back to Gare du Nord. You’re not far, but you want to make sure you have time to find your track and wander one last time within the confines of this grand train station.
  • 7PM Au Revoir Paris! A bientot!

Home sweet Home

April 7, 2012

Take it personally!

February 23, 2012

Need a great gift idea? How about dinner for two prepared in your home by a personal chef.

As some of you may know (despite my public displays of affection for my lovely boyfriend, D) I am not very romantic. I hate the idea of Valentine’s day, I think celebrating anniversaries is kinda lame, and I rarely make any requests for candlelight dinners, flowers or chocolate. But I do love giving and receiving  unique gifts.

And so, the other week, I was trying to come up with a gift for D– whether we celebrate or not, I still wanted to do something special for our three-year anniversary. That’s when Fran Davis popped up on my Facebook newsfeed with the idea of hiring a personal chef to prepare dinner for two. Bingo. I hate cooking, but love to eat healthy so I chose my menu items (she had a few to choose from) and I hired her.

Personal Chef Fran Davis, of The Flavorful Fork

On Friday, she arrived at 4ish with all her cooking supplies, including her own pans, knives, spices,  and towels for clean up. I think she even brought her own sponge! Anyway, as she cooked (in my kitchen), I was able to finish up some work and then pad around the house, doing virtually nothing. Actually, I kinda felt like a lazy, pampered (spoiled) bourgeois housewife. But we chatted and laughed and I was amazed at how well she was able to not only cook this amazing meal, but socialize as well. I think if I had her job, I would have been more like, “OK, don’t talk to me, and get out of the kitchen!” Who knows, maybe inside that’s how she felt. Truth is, she seemed very at home and comfortable.

So, D came home around 5:30.  Fran had also brought over a bottle of Spanish red for us, so we started drinking that. I set the table, lit a candle (why not) and by 5:45 dinner was served.

Our first course was a mango and avocado salad with mango dressing (I still have the dressing in my fridge and keep putting it on everything), after that she served Parmesan-Herb Crusted Tilapia, served with mashed yams (I believe she threw a little sage into the yams too). This main course was so amazingly good that it made me believe I was eating at Le Bec Fin. Tres gourmet. To think that something that delicious can be made in my kitchen is a bit of a shocker. That was always my excuse as to why I never cooked. I didn’t think my kitchen was capable of it. Then again, there was that time that Natalie made that amazing risotto. Now, I guess, I have no excuse.

But back to Fran, our final course was a pear-cranberry fruit crumble for dessert with a scoop of coconut ice cream. Dear Lord! I think I gained 10 pounds in two hours. But it was completely worth it. By that point, D and I were both in our respective food comas and I don’t even remember Fran cleaning up. The next thing I remember was hugging her goodbye and dreaming up a future event where her services could again, be put to good use. Maybe a tapas party in the new house? Just to make sure the new kitchen is capable of serving up fabulous faire? Definitely food for thought.

As for my lack of enthusiasm for romance, I guess I’m not entirely averse to it. But I would still not say that the night was romantic. It’s kind of hard to be all shmoopy in the presence of a friend who’s cooking in your kitchen. But it was definitely a positive, unique experience. And that’s what I liked about it. I could feel pampered for the night and in my book, any time I don’t have to cook, it’s a good thing! I will definitely be calling Fran again. And I hope this inspires others to do the same! She can be reached at The Flavorful Fork dot com.


November 14, 2011

The summer after I graduated high school, I left home. I worked on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ with Israelis, Moroccans, Canadians, French and Russians. Those people did crazy things to me. They introduced me to the world. They pulled at my insides, sparks flew, something felt very right, like a calling to turn my life over to God. I was eighteen and still remember sitting in Frieda’s tiny, one-room apartment on Young Avenue. She was a woman with whom I sold t-shirts. A ton of Israelis, after their stint in the army, would live in a kibbutz and would have connections to others who were making tons of money ironing decals on t-shirts at the Jersey shore. Word of mouth sent her here. She knew she could make money under the table for the summer while getting to know America.  In the winter, she, along with everyone else, migrated to Fort Lauderdale, and then back again, year after year, never entirely settling down. There was something familiar in the ebb and flow of the way she lived her life. But I could never put my finger on it.

On a hotplate plugged into the wall she made me “Israeli coffee” and poured it in a tea glass, with sugar. We talked about life on the kibbutz, Shimon Peres and the Palestinians. “We are all human,” she said. She taught me how to say I love you, in Hebrew, which incited me to go around to all my other friends and ask them how to say I love you in their language. By the end of the summer, I could say I love you in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and Hungarian.

It may have begun then.

When I turned 20, I moved to Paris and lived in a one-room chambre de bonne on rue Rimbuteau. I read a lot of Henry Miller, got laid, dropped out of my French classes at the Alliance Francaise and existed in such a state of poverty that my friend Karen and I would steal food from her stepdad’s house during the day, and then at night, we’d flirt with rich exchange students at the Violon Dingue trying to get them to buy us free drinks. I was even homeless for a few days and spent a good 24-hours with a transient, tattooed, pierced, skinhead named Will West who kept me laughing through my vagrancy. We would stay at free night clubs all around Les Halles and dance like zombies until seven in the morning, until the cafes opened and then, we could sit for hours with the alcoholics and street people, drinking cheap coffee and toasted baguette for ten francs. Je ne regrette rein.

When my mother dragged me home in the fall of ’89, I applied for a job as a cashier at John Wanamaker’s. The woman who interviewed me read my application and saw that I had just come back from France. She smiled and said, “Coming back to reality, eh?” It wasn’t long after that that I repacked my bags and took a bartending gig in Greenland. I’ll show you reality, bitch.

Sondrestromford, was a US and Danish military base right below the arctic circle. It was cold as hell. Thirty degrees below zero could turn a flower to shattered glass. There were no trees. Just gray, monochrome hills with dark skies and the occasional aurora borealis that slinked across a sky so lit up by stars you thought you might be looking through a telescope. A fjord the color of wet cement cut along the base.  I served drunks at the NCO Club and dated an American bodybuilder who taught me how to lift weights–there was nothing else to do up there but use the indoor gym, hunt musk ox and make money. I did that for a good five months before realizing that some places are better left untraveled. So, I came back home.

Part of the experience of being away from home, was longing for home. There was a weird dichotomy there. It was like what someone said to me about living in Paris. The only way to continue to love Paris, is to leave. So, for many years, I lived at home to the point of exhaustion and ennui, only to pack my bags, and live somewhere else for a time, until I missed home again. Back home, back out again. Back home, back out again. Just like that.

The older I got, though, the length of time it took to get to the point of missing home shortened. Until eventually, I did the unthinkable. I married and settled down. Granted, I married a Spaniard, which afforded me several costly trips back and forth to Madrid. Kids have to visit their Abuelos, you know. But the truth is, for the first time in my life, I actually liked home. I no longer wanted to run away. Making peace with the idea of stability, continuity, and permanence was a trip in itself. Something I had never known. The drawback is that kids force you into such a state of routine that you end up feeling trapped. At least I did. Drop off, pick up, drop off, pick up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed-time at exactly eight. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Nothing to jostle the monotony. So, you join the Junior Women’s Club. You go to Longaberger basket parties. You volunteer at school to serve lunches. You ask your mother to babysit so you and your husband can actually be alone and scream during sex. When that only happens once every six months, you go back to school and get a degree and have an affair. Well, you don’t have an affair. He does. And well, then you get to a point where you kinda fondly remember the monotony. But, that’s another story.

Permanence wasn’t my thing anyway. And so, in 2004, three events occurred which, even in their bad sad miserable way, allowed me to reclaim my inherent nature–a traveler. My father died. I divorced. And, I finally got my college degree (granted, the last was a positive consequence of my years as a stable New Jerseyan). When these three things happened, my tether broke. And when a tether on a hot air balloon breaks, there’s no telling which way the wind will blow it.

Within months, of these events happening, I hit the road. Twenty eight days, across the Heartland. Long stays with my kids in the Utah desert. Hiking the red rocks of Moab. Flying over the Grand Canyon. Twelve-hour car rides that had me fantasizing about the practicality of wearing a Depends undergarment so as not to make so many damn pee stops.

Travel is in my blood. Which gets me thinking. It probably didn’t begin with Wildwood. It didn’t begin with Paris or Greenland or week-long trips to Long Beach Island, or summers in Philly, or any of the trips I actually took to simply get away from home, get away from me. It began much further back than that.

In ’67, my mother and father eloped. They packed up my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova and headed to Vegas. A year later, they made their way back to the West Coast, to Hollywood, where I was born in May of ’68. In November, we came home to Jersey and stayed a while. But not long. And while we never, vacationed, per se, we did move. And every move was an adventure.

In fact, we moved every year, for fourteen years. A new house every year, sometimes less than a year if my father couldn’t pay the bills. Adapting, readapting, not adapting so well. Moving in anger; moving in fear. Moving with our tail between our legs. Moving out of shame and necessity because we had burned our bridge. Moving with elation and joy to be in a new, undiscovered world of hallways and bedrooms and hidden closets and eiree basements and blistering hot attics. We weren’t moving to anything, now that I think of it. We were running away. Well, I wasn’t running away. It wasn’t me who couldn’t pay the bills. I was just along for the ride.

But a funny thing happens to a child whether she likes it or not. She inherits her parents’ hopes and fears and everything in between.  The circular reasoning that makes up 90 percent of the gray matter in her head. There was, in fact, a box of dolls I no longer played with that remained packed for many years because my mother was sick and tired of unpacking them. This frustrated me for a time because, of the few friends I was able to make, most had a wall of pretty little knick knacks, dolls, and porcelain (or plastic) horses on display with which they no longer played. I did not. My walls were bare. And so, when I was finally old enough to take these dolls out of the box, to pull them from their captive bundle of newsprint and bubble wrap, I didn’t even like them anymore. And so, I ended up throwing them away or maybe giving them away to another little girl who might have appreciated them more than I. Their traditional spot on a dusty, permanent shelf, where they could have sat throughout my entire childhood, held no meaning for me. And yet, I was embarrassed for so long at the transience of my life. Even now, when I explain my past to people (because traveling 14 times in 15 years is a bit much for a kid, don’t you think), they ask, “Was your father in the military?” I can’t say that I’m not slightly ashamed to have to say, “No, he was not.”

My childhood was a rich fabric of insanity, joy and adventure. I’ll leave it at that.

But here’s the thing. Every house was a home, a world unto itself –like a country, with a different language spoken within its borders. Each closet, to my child’s eye, was a landmark, a monument; each new kitchen, served a new regional cuisine. Every backyard was a continent, a varied landscape with fields that stretched to the horizon, or snowcapped mountains, or dark forests; seascapes, city lines, quiet, fenced-in corners pulsing with tiger lilies and skies broken to pieces with big white clouds. We traversed New Jersey, then up to New Hampshire, then back again. We lived in farmhouses, big houses, small houses, ranchers and even, what my mother not-so-fondly called, “a cardboard box.” My life is thusly divided into fourteen different worlds, with a myriad of experiences.  The cliché “home is where the heart is,” aptly applies.

In less than a week I’ll be in Holland. A month ago it was Bear Creek for work. Then Sedona.  Followed by Baltimore and now NYC. The instability of all this travel wears me out. Some days, I’d simply rather stay home. And yet, there is the eternal, inborn wax and wane, the coming and going, the internal rotating door that can’t be tuned out. An opportunity to adapt, readapt, not adapt so well. At the heart of it, I suppose, I’m used to the discomfort, the inconvenience. It has meaning. It’s who I am. The doll on the shelf can’t shake a stick at the story I tell and retell. And to me, the significance of that is far greater than any gift I may bring back home to decorate my walls.  More importantly, the child in me is finally OK with the idea that there’s no need to unpack.

Raising the dead

November 11, 2011

I cried this morning. No. I sobbed.

Pernille sent me an email regarding D and I being picked up at the airport upon our arrival in Amsterdam. We’ve known for quite some time we’d be going; we already have our tickets. So Pernille’s email was simply relating a few particulars on how we’d get from the airport to the hotel. Amsterdam is still very much happening! Within the email, however,  it listed the ways in which the others in our group would be coming into the city on or around the 21st. We would be coming in from Philadelphia. C would be flying in from London. And E would be taking the train in from Germany, I believe, and didn’t need any help getting to the hotel. It was this last bit that reminded me of trains. And this last bit that reminded me I needed to look at a map of Europe before heading to The Netherlands. It’s been a while since I’ve needed to know where anything was in Europe except Spain. Ergo, I’ve forgotten much of my geography. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s the isolationist mentality of the American who knows very little of the world save how to get to Disneyland.

Google maps. Zoom in: Amsterdam on the Markermeer sea, across the North Sea from Great Britain. To the east of Germany. To the north of Denmark, Norway, Sweden. To the south of Brussels.

To the south of Brussels. Zoom out. Draw an imaginary line with finger below Brussels. Bingo.

There it was. Staring me in the face. The proximity of Amsterdam to France, and more importantly, Paris. I sobbed with happiness and release. Twenty-two years of trying to get back to a place I could never emotionally give up. Like a torchbearer for a lost love. Four and half hours by car; three hours and nineteen minutes by high-speed train. A six a.m. ride from Station Amsterdam Centraal will get us to Paris-Nord by 9:35. Petit dejeuner at Les Deux Magots. A stroll through Les Halles.  Notre Dame.  Saint Michel. Jardin du Luxembourg. My old flat on rue Rimbuteau. Le Violon Dingue. Lunch at La Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Henry Miller. Ezra Pound. James Joyce. Dorothy Parker. Camille Claudel. Kiki. Picasso. Ford Madox Ford. DH Lawrence. Rodin. Anais Nin. Gertrude Stein. John Dos Passos. The Louvre. Sacre Coeurs. Dinner in Montparnasse.

The Eiffel Tower.

In the years that followed my father’s death I kept having dreams that he would come back to life. I would know he was dead in the dream and then suddenly, I would walk into a secret room that I never knew existed in his house, and he’d be there in front of me, smoking a cigarette and saying something casually obvious like, “See! I’m not really dead. Just hiding out.” I would cry hysterically and hug him, and think, the nightmare is over; I have my father back. It’s that feeling of raising the dead, that it’s as simple as booking one simple train ride, on the right website, from the comfort of your home. You only have to know how to figure out the puzzle. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I’ve always had the power to “go back.” And yet, if somebody told me it was that easy, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had to figure it out for myself.

But alas! Perhaps this is all too good to be true. I am waiting on Pernille to get back to me, regarding whether or not we are free to travel that day or have events that I might need to be present for. I am hoping for the former. I’ve come so far. I would hate to think I was given supernatural powers to resurrect the dead only to have them taken away and be turned back into a human. I may have to remind myself that the dead are long buried and there is no bringing them back. That Paris is still very muchly out of reach. At least in this lifetime. Quelle injustice!

A touchy subject, even for the world of film

November 11, 2011

In a few days, D and I are headed to Amsterdam for the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) where a film I took part in, “Love Addict,” will debut. And while I’m thrilled to once again be part of the art world, schmoozing with a great clique of writers, directors, producers and photographers, in Europe no less, I am a little leery.

For starters, the documentary is a topic of interest that might not be, how shall I put this, all that well received. It’s about weakness and that’s something some people have a hard time witnessing. People might laugh. We will, after all, be in Europe. “Oh those Americans,” they’ll say, “Always angst ridden and falling apart over the most luxurious and invented of possible problems.” And it’s true. Love addiction isn’t really about love or anything lofty like that. It’s not even about something as ugly yet facinating as being addicted to sex, meth, hoarding or any of the more lowbrow dysfunctions. It’s about the psychology of personal defense mechanisms and how that plays out in a person’s life. It’s about whining over not being loved, but feeling stuck and doing nothing about it because you don’t believe in yourself. Superficial, self-centered stuff that probably should have been dealt with at age 13, not 43.

And let’s face it. The documentary is not based on “real” suffering, in the broader sense, the kind you find in places like war-ravaged Iraq or Sierra Leone. We didn’t film a heated polemic on climate change or the impending doom of global food shortages. This is self-imposed, I can’t control my behavior stuff that causes suffering. It’s akin to over-eating, over-spending, gambling, drinking. It’s the addiction argument. We participate in these behaviors of over-indulgence and over-consumption and suffer the consequences, then wonder what the hell happened when we fall flat on our faces. We wonder how it got this bad. And why it can’t be stopped. So we call it a “disease.” Really, it’s like cancer; it spreads. Obsessing over that which we cannot have and putting up with bad behavior from others becomes the dominant response. It gets to the point where good judgment is lost. It gets to the point where a husband smacks his wife across the face. It gets to the point where she stays because she “loves” him. She stays “for the kids.” Or she stays because she’s scared to death to be alone.

Sure, people might snicker over my American sensibility for personal growth. And they might even get that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of their stomachs when the director toys with the idea of a woman who resorts to stalking a la Fatal Attraction, or another who dates a kid fifteen years her junior with no job and no real ability to handle an adult relationship, let alone take care of himself. Through most of the documentary, in fact, you find yourself asking, is this a real problem or do these people simply suck at managing their lives. In the beginning you feel like, clearly, anyone labeled a love addict is sick in the head. In the end, you wonder, “Could this be me?”

And that’s a good question.

Maybe the cultural dilemma of how men and women treat each other within a relationship is not as black and white as the media would have you think. Maybe love addiction is a lot subtler than the Hollywood version, or the battered woman version. Maybe the term “love addiction” is a misnomer, and it’s even more prevalent than alcoholism. You remember those statistics from the 80’s? In every family there’s at least one drunk. Or was that “jerk”? I can’t remember now. But I can tell you this: there’s tons of unhappy women suffering through bad relationships right now or stuck in a one-sided flimsy representation of one. It’s plague-ish, if you ask me. Take a good look at all your girlfriends. How many have stayed in a bad relationship or a bad marriage long past the point of dignity? That’s love addiction. How many settle for a “friends with benefits” situation in the hopes it turns into something more? That’s love addiction. How many men or women do you know that have had affairs and destroyed their families on the fantasy-based whim that love with this perfect new stranger will save their soul? That’s love addiction. And how about the hard-working career woman who finds it safer to date a married man, or one about 3000 miles away rather than go out and actually find someone close and available? That too, is love addiction.

It was just this past weekend that my Aunt came to a family party with proof that dating a bad boy is an epidemic among twentysomethings. She showed me a photo of my cousin N, a beautiful Paris-Hiltonish statuesque blond. She was pictured with a cute, smiling Italian guy. The first words out of my Aunt’s mouth were, “This guy is actually [emphasis mine] nice.” I.e. he’s not a f’ up like the previous ones.

It reminded me of my youth. I dated one bad boy after another. Each one ever so slightly less bad than the last. You’d think I’d be trading in behavioral traits in the hundreds instead of making microscopic improvements in increments of one. But were my bad dating decisions so far from the realm of what’s normal? I don’t think so. Sure, some of my friends dated good, kind, loving men who treated them well. But most couples in my circle had problems. And marriage didn’t leave you exempt from mismanaging your life. Marriage and love addiction are not mutually exclusive. And while having problems within a relationship is normal and unavoidable and by no means signifies that you or your partner are addicted to love, the degree to which those problems do exist and the length of time they last are your best indication that you are in a healthy relationship or that serious soul searching is in order.

But getting people to accept that idea is almost impossible. We all have preconceived notions of who we are and Unflattering Labels don’t really fit into our personal worldview, I’ll give you that. Who wants to be labeled a junkie? But remove the label and what have you got? Romeo and Juliet, is what you’ve got. The glamorization of painful, unhealthy love. So, does it really matter what the disease is called? Does it really matter if it’s a disease at all? The lessons are what’s priceless: love thyself, your body is a temple, you are a miracle, you have value, you deserve better than scraps, you need to grow up and get over the fact that life ain’t a Shakespeare play…

This documentary doesn’t offer those lessons. It should, but it doesn’t (it will have resources for how to get help on its website and DVD). What it does offer is the problem. And a socially acceptable glimpse at love addiction. Unlike self-help books, which, let’s be honest, are a bit embarrassing (no one wants to be seen checking out a copy of “ Women Who Love Too Much”), documentaries don’t imply there’s anything wrong with you. You can go to the theater and be a voyeur into the lives of others and you can freely and secretly gauge if this is something you need to investigate further. A documentary is a film. It’s art. And while you can certainly judge the participants of the film—and even laugh at them if you want—you cannot avoid recognizing yourself in their stories, if but in the smallest of ways.

And I guess that’s all I can hope for. That art can still inspire individuals to sustain judgment and think deeply about what this film implies. Not the sloppy Jerry Springerish implication of classless people getting paid wads of cash to beat the crap out of each other for entertainment. But the deeper implications of the human heart, and its delicate  and often feeble inability to always be strong.

Kids raised in homes without TV, electronics, are burdening society, report suggests

October 21, 2011

Philadelphia- Parents of young children are now urged to allow unlimited TV time, a recent study suggests. Television, computers and other self-described zoning-out electronic devices, despite offering little to no educational value and leaving children and adults dull-minded and apathetic do have their benefits.

According to Rolfe Hamburger, PhD and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics,  most children are raised in front of the TV, which stunts their growth and leaves them virtually unable to interact socially with other children. “That’s OK,” Hamburger suggests, “because the bar for ‘normal childhood behavior’ has now been lowered dramatically.” What has become a concern, Hamburger and his team of constituents contend, is the relatively miniscule but growing number of children whose parents don’t allow their kids to watch anyTV.

“These new ‘superkids’,” Hamburger says, “have a strong ability to communicate, keen interpersonal skills and a capacity to remain focused on tasks for longer than a minute, most likely because they’ve never been propped in front of the TV for four hours straight while Mom takes a cigarette break and gabs on the phone.” But, he warns, “these kids are becoming a drain on society and all the other children who can’t seem to cope with them on the playground.”

According to the study, which was conducted among a group of 30,000 randomly selected seven-year-old boys and girls across America, and which rated their TV-watching habits, “one in seventeen American children is placing unreasonable and excessive demands on his classmates by expecting them to play, interact and engage in actual dialog.” The study determined that less than .00001% of the population of children in America are not watching TV or playing video games, but rather “playing outside,” “doing activities with their parents,” or “reading books.”

Hamburger and pediatricians like him are “disturbed” by the findings.

“This puts a growing rift in our society,” Philip Locklear, DO, a local pediatrician from Chestnut Hill says. “No adult wants to be confronted with his own self-deprecating sluggishness and ineptitude, let alone a child. And that’s what happens in the presence of these kids. They are a constant reminder of the shame we now endure as adults for spending so many hours watching The Dukes of Hazard when we were kids.”

Disaster in the ‘burbs

August 27, 2011

Years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire, my father took me camping out in my backyard. I spent the night holed up in an old chicken coop, while my father heated up a pot of soup over an open fire. I remember feeling so free and pioneering, despite being yards away from my house. Just my dad and I,  surviving the elements, living like frontiersmen. Trying to make do on rations of soup, hotdogs and a loaf of Wonder bread. It was exhilarating. Until I realized that I was missing my nightly glass of warm milk before bed.  “We’re surviving out here,” my dad told me. “There’s no glass of milk in the wilderness.”

I wasn’t much of a survivalist then and I’m still not. And in a deep-rooted, guilt-ridden sense, I am ashamed of myself and  people like me who, sadly, are creatures of comfort. Whose disaster mentality has translated not only into buying up a gazillion water bottles and stock piling food like it was the end of the world, but purchasing rain boots, generators and a month’s supply of romance novels. I am embarrassed that our survivalist instinct has turned into a consumerist instinct, and that we even have all this crap for purchase to begin with. And, I regret to admit that extreme conditions, cautioned about incessantly on every TV channel and every radio station and every online newswire, incite us to run out to Wal-Mart as if our life depended on it.

I’m kind of disappointed too that we desperately fear adversity. Oh sure, we love it in movies. But reality’s another story. What happened to our fore fathers’ pioneering spirit? Has our DNA transmuted so severely that no one wants to be that guy whose power goes out for a week; or whose house blows away; or whose stuff sinks into biblical flash floods and everything he owns is stripped from him in a matter of 24 hours?  The guy who didn’t heed the governor’s warning to “prepare” or “evacuate.” And even though, you know as well as I do, that the power will be back on within 24 hours, it’s a little disheartening  that we’re all purchasing with such fury and devotion.

I’m not saying that I don’t think the storm will do damage. Or even that lives or possessions are at risk. I’m not even upset that, after the 5.9 earthquake where the extent of destruction was an overturned plastic chair,  Wolf Blitzer finally has something to talk about.

What I am saying is that our survivalist instinct has morphed into some weird excuse to shop.

And while  The Dominican Republic, or some of the smaller islands of The Bahamas  watch their lives sink into oblivion, we on the East Coast are buying up two-hundred cans of Chicken Noodle soup for a ten-hour power outage.

Forget about the coastal towns, where homes are truly in the path of the eye of the storm. There are spots from South Carolina to Maine that need to take extreme caution. I’m not talking about those places. I’m talking about right here– 40 miles inland, where my local grocery store’s shelves are bare and where Target has sold out of not only batteries, but rain boots (Rain boots? Really?)

What bothers me is our desperate tenacity to avoid any kind of deprivation. We fear being without. Without electricity. Without power. Without water. Without food. Without peanut M&Ms, a pocket full of cash and about twenty DVDs for weekend movie watching. Being without has become unpatriotic. “Stuff” and the possessing of it is as American as apple pie. Sure, there are necessities that we should not go without during a hurricane. An emergency preparedness kit is a great idea. But hoarding and stockpiling massive quantities of food and useless commodities like rain boots is, quite frankly, insane. Especially when you consider that PSE&G will have “6000 employees supporting the restoration effort, including 840 linemen and 540 tree contractors available to respond to outages once the hurricane pulls away.”

You know as well as I do that the power will be back on–if your home is still standing– within 24 hours. And if your home isn’t still standing, then a can opener won’t do you much good, will it? Remarkably,  the diner down the road can take care of your needs.

Wawa will re-open. Shop Rite will be restocked. Roads will clear.

This is the suburbs. It’s not Nunivak Island off the Yukon River delta in Alaska. I’m not sure of any disaster scenario in Cherry Hill, NJ which might necessitate a three-day supply of non-perishables when Whole Foods is in walking distance and will reopen for business the day after the storm. No one will starve. No one will go hungry. And no one, technically, will go without.

The Wall Street Journal had an amazing article out a while ago, entitled, The Fantasy of Survivalism, which details our inherent need to experience real disaster. That need showcases itself every where–in apocalyptic movies like 2012, Armageddon and Doomsday; in our media outlets, news channels and social networking sites; and in our own “disaster mentality,” which compels us, as a society, to stockpile, hoard and accumulate goods when rationally, it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Virginia Postrel writes, “…the survivalist instinct mostly plays to a perverse fantasy. It’s both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you’re completely independent, that you don’t need anyone or anything beyond your home, that you can master any challenge. In the survivalist imagination, a future disaster becomes a high-stakes opportunity to demonstrate competence and superiority.”

But sadly, there’s a rather large disconnect between the fantasy of surviving and the reality of it. For one, we’re not really surviving. We’re weathering a storm. You survive the Isreali-Palestinian border. You survive trekking through Tibet. You do not survive affluent Haddonfield.  Second, we’re failing to make logical, rational judgements in the face of “What if…” The Weather Channel reported that “28 million are under threat of a hurricane watch.” It sounds devastating. It sounds catastrophic. And it sounds like I better get 100 bottles of water instead of ten. In other words, my perspective on where I am located, my socio-economic status, the strength of my home and the resources surrounding  me don’t play into my  judgement about what will probably happen, as opposed to what could happen (side note: at the height of this thing, they’re calling for 40 mph winds for Medford, NJ). Lastly, if you want to know the truth, most of us are ill-prepared for true survival anyway. “Our society is full of ignorant urbanites who don’t know how to make what they use,”  Postrel quotes, “That ignorance makes us vulnerable.” And that ignorance  leads us to believe that  consumption of goods is the next best thing. I, for one, couldn’t tell you how to find edible berries in the woods if my life depended on it.

Which leads me back to my argument about the suburbs. Do we really need to forage for food anyway? Do we really need to prepare for three days of isolation and internment when, within minutes after the storm,  Krispy Kreme will reopen and we can once again pig out on donuts? Has anyone ever eaten cold soup from a can anyway???

Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our  disaster mentality that we “play out the steps taken ‘before, during, and after a natural disaster’. These include ‘predictions of impending doom’, overreactions, the ‘institutionalization of threat’, rumour, false alarms and at times mass delusion” (Cohen 1972: 144-8 in Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1994: 29). And speaking of impending doom, I made sure to shave my legs this morning in the shower, lest I am cut off from a water supply for several days.

All this brings me  to Bangladesh. Every year in Bangladesh monsoons come and wipe out everything along the river. Every year people lose their homes, their possession; some lose their lives. But they’ve become so adapted to this way of life that they can collect all their belongings in one bag and stick it in a boat. They can float down river for days until the floods cease. And then, they rebuild–year after year after year.  Postrel quotes Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution as saying; “Those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity,”

And I agree. We give up something of ourselves and forego our deeper potential to “survive” when we turn our power over to credit cards and to nonsensical stockpiling of things as nutty as “freeze dried delights which can be easily stored for 7-25 years.”(Suburban Survivalists Begin Hoarding Food, Water and Weapons).

Look, who am I kidding. I went out and bought up water bottles and canned goods just like everyone else. I have my fancy little crank radio, candles and matches ready to go. And without anyone knowing, I secretly checked to make sure our sleeping bags were readily accessible. For what, I don’t know. And there is a part of me, deep down inside, that functions, like Postrel suggests, on a “survivalist imagination” and wishes to experience an epic event where I actually get to use all this stuff. But the reality is, I am well taken care of. Trees will blow down around me. Maybe even some power lines will fall. Maybe I’ll lose electricity. If I’m lucky, dinner will be a can of beans that I’ll open with my manual can opener.  I’ll feel like I’m a frontierswoman again. And in the morning, just like everyone else, when the storm’s over,  I’ll go back to the grocery store and restock– or I’ll eat my words. Let’s hope for the former.

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

August 10, 2011

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.

Life goes on…

July 23, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve written, why with all the changes that have occurred recently and all, I simply haven’t had the time or the inclination to sit down and write. I have also been putting a lot more focus on my other blogs, and so this one has somewhat fallen by the wayside.

But aside from the big news in my life that D and I now live together, the bigger news is that the world didn’t end on May 21st and…better yet… we’re still not paying the price for our unraptured souls.

In fact, D and I have been  celebrating. Not the end of the world, but the beginning of ours. We finally went out last night (sans kids) into the city. We talked about sex and confessed our deepest darkest secrets. Mine, of course, always a little deeper and darker. We ate tuna tartar, halibut and octopus, margaritas and martinis. And stared up at the high domed ceiling of the Ritz Carlton which was glowing pink with lights from the bar. Nothing compares to a warm night in Philly, dinner and a pear martini  at 10Arts, and then hobbling along tipsily on heels across Broad, down Walnut, and zooming back over the bridge towards home with the top down…

On the way home we  talked about a trip to Sedona for his birthday. There’s a spa out there to die for called Enchantment Resort. It’s booked and we simply cannot wait. Oh the desert. It’s calling me. In fact, I hope our desert adventure reawakens my desire to write. I’ve been so lazy lately!

The day after we actually went back into the city to have lunch at Beau Monde for some stuffed crepes and champagne. Walked around. Got coffee at a little indie place off South Street and then headed home. End of fantasy; back to reality. And reality lately has been a little tough on me, why with all the newness of my new life. All the new dynamics in my household. I can only hope that I adapt to the change as easily as I used to. With weekends like this, all things are possible. I have hope. I am excited about the future.

This is the thing about the end of the world. Despite there being a future, we die every day. And every day  we are reborn. It’s a solo journey, despite having someone along for the ride.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

March 13, 2011

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 


January 25, 2011

Listening to the hallowed thump of my father’s fingers on the wood, the tiny squeak of the tuning pegs pulling tension on the strings, my two brothers and I gazed like giddy, perfect Buddhas into the hollow bodies of our parents’ Martin guitars from our spot on the floor at their feet.

And we watched their fingers strum and pick—the steel and the nylon—as they fumbled with their capos, and belted out the pages, one soprano, one alto, of torn sheet music with their throats.

John Denver, Jerry Jeff, Emmy Lou, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, Kris Kristofferson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band…

These folky jam sessions where my father sang into my mothers eyes and struggled to reach those higher notes never lasted all that long. The moments before someone was first to put down his or her guitar, to grab a cigarette, sounded best. The last notes hung sweetly like a tremolo, something mysterious and dark hovering overhead, a lumpy fog of calamitous death.

And it held us in place, for fear the slightest of our movements be the cause of this end. Except our voices, which rose above each plucked string along the fret, and danced, and knew we had no choice but to let go.

Donating and other feel good acts

January 14, 2011

In 2004, when my dad died, he left my brothers and I with a few bucks. Knowing nothing about money I put a bit aside, and then proceeded to spend like a mad woman for the next few years, ad nauseam. You know when the rich tell you that money makes them feel “empty” inside, and that it can’t buy happiness? Bullshit. I was deliriously happy. In fact, I was so happy and so self-focused that I didn’t once think to donate any of that cash to a worthy cause, to the homeless, to the environment. Nothing. Sadly, all my money went to Eli Tahari, Roberto Cavalli and Valentino. It went to a heated bathroom floor and a shower stall with talavera tiles. Two trips across country and one to Spain. It went to other more meaningful places too: lavish gifts for the family, dinners out, ridiculously expensive gifts for transient boyfriends.

But all that’s another story. Blah, blah, blah. Truth is, in a sense, I had no purpose, whether I realized it or not.

But then a miraculous thing happened when I lost it all– and I did lose it all, like one loses her breath breathing in anticipation of being told, “Just kidding! It’s all still there.”–when I really lost it all, except my pay check (and even that was cut in half!) something in me changed. I didn’t fall a part, or go into debt, or lose my sense of self. Instead, for the first time, I woke up and recognized the value of all that money. Oh! We only truly appreciate something until after it’s gone. I immediately paid off any balance on credit cards, I changed my lifestyle drastically and I tightened up my budget– I washed my own car, ate out less, cancelled my subscriptions, and said goodbye to the landscapers, handymen and cleaning ladies (OK, I admit, I kept the cleaning lady…but I worked her into the budget). But definitely no more Netflix, Weigh Watcher’s or monthly spa treatments. I even…dare I say it…got rid of the Audi.

In the wake of all this loss and financial restructuring, I added something to the budget for the first time, something that most people don’t add when they lose money: a budget for donating. Now that I had so little myself, I recognized the value in giving. Of course, I was clumsy at first. In the beginning, I donated frivolously: NPR, WHYY, Rutgers University. Then I donated foolishly: a light bulb company that claimed to help keep the blind in business (A gazillion light bulbs later I found out this was a scam). Finally, I made donations that made sense: I drove bags of winter coats, toiletries and money to a battered women’s shelter. I donated hundreds of self-help books to a halfway house for alcoholics, and I stuffed goody bags with fruits, raisins, juice boxes, chocolate and WaWa gift cards to be handed out to the homeless. It made me feel good. It made me feel privileged. What’s more, it made me feel as though I had a purpose.

Money is a strange bird. And only when you have it and then lose it do you recognize how important it is to share it, to do good with it. Then again, maybe that’s just me. Maybe I needed to be taught the value of money in a harsher way. Because honestly, there’s an amazing amount of donating that still goes on,despite this tough economy. The money raised during marathons, the gifts given to children with cancer, the bricks bought to save a life. People are inherently generous. And every day I see it, I am inspired to do more.

And so tomorrow, marks the first annual goody bag gift giving adventure in Philly. D and I will be taking these bags and handing them out to those in need. I was able to raise $220 this year. I got a late start. But maybe next year, we can do a little better.

Winter blues

January 11, 2011

"Beyond Repair"

Day two of severe mood flop. January dragging on too long…Need a distraction…Drowning in my own boredom….Help!

I’m not sure if this is the winter blues or the fact that I’m coming down from a one-month coffee high. Whatever the case, I’m miserable around this time of year. Any new and exciting stimuli is a ray of sunlight. Trouble is, I’m usually too depressed or unmotivated to actually go out and look for stuff to stimulate me. When I’m really withdrawn (hours of watching Cold Case Files and Dr. Phil) I tend to wait for someone to knock on the front door. That’s about the only thing I’ve got going for me from January until late March. Well, hello UPS guy! That package for me? No? Wrong address? But, I’m sure I ordered something online. Wait…come back..!

Of course there’s my perfect guy, and the kids, and a couple events coming up, and if I’m really in the mood, there’s always planning for a summer vacation. But I suppose it’s just my circadian hibernation rhythms taking over making all that seem, well, a little, dare I say it, bland. So while the seasonal affective disorder makes its yearly round, I’ve come up with a plan. Only read happy websites. Instead of letting the brain atrophy and the heart sink, I’ve found some interesting websites to help draw me back into the world of the living. Let’s hope these do the trick. If not, there’s always shopping online.

  • Jason Shen’s blog is, well, fun. Even though it’s a little media/corporate driven he’s come up with really inspiring blogs. One in particular is something called a “Rejection Challenge,” which, if I were single, might be a huge motivation for me to get off my arse and go ask someone out on a date. I’m a sucker for challenges, and for taking calculated risks.
  • The Happiness Project: “Happiness, many people assume, is boring – a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people,” says Gretchen Rubin on her highly acclaimed website. And yet we all want it. Well, if this site doesn’t offer a nugget of how to be happy, I don’t know what else will. Peruse the site. See if you can’t find a dozen uplifting concepts. Either that, or be happy you don’t have to visit that site every day. Even for me, Gretchen can be a little too much.
  • Global Good News: This is one of my favorite sites, especially the Maharishi’s funkadelic fashion. And while it’s an India-based religious website, the designers have done a great job collecting positive news around the world.
  • TED: I was surprised to learn that not many people know about “TED,” (“Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”), so I’m posting it here as one of the greatest resources for learning ANYTHING. I could spend all day here.
  • Horse Pig Cow: Powerful woman, uplifting, inspiring, funny, brave. Subscribe. I did.
  • My Marrakesh: Simply beautiful website on Moroccan design and living. I waste time here every winter, dreaming about the desert.

Dream of the week: concept of Christianity

January 2, 2011

The Great Spirits Portrait - Robert Donaghey

Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Last night I had a dream that I was invited to attend an annual symposium of Christians and non-Christians (non-Christians that is, whose belief in history, science and religion are not entirely Christian based). The argument from the Christians was, every year, that non-Christians are cold, scientific atheists who do not believe in God and therefore, are judged as faithless, empty heathens who aren’t going to heaven. The argument from the non-Christians, of which I was one, was one of defensiveness, that non-Christians are warm, loving, well-educated, spiritual people who are tired of constantly being judged falsely for not having the same beliefs as the Christians. We also contended that Christians are unrealistic thinkers who can’t exist outside the box of man-made religion and have no ability or will to redefine or reinterpret some of the old, outmoded verses of their bible that simply do not apply to life today or ever,and that faith is not fact and others should not be judged on their ability or inability to *believe* in one thing, when there are other things to believe in.

Everyone at the symposium was relatively friendly to one another, despite the black and white thinking. But sadly, the non-Christians only had about five tables to the Christians’ 15. Needless to say, I felt a little out-numbered.

As the symposium was about to begin, I ran to use the bathroom, which was rather dirty. As I waited in line, I saw one of the Christian boys stick his head down the toilet. I was horrified to see this. His mother, who was helping her youngest daughter in the stall next to the boy, yelled over to her son, “What the heck are you doing?” I then quickly jumped in and replied, “He’s sticking his head down a dirty toilet,” believing she’d jump up and grab him in outrage. But that didn’t happen. The mother, obviously exasperated by her situation and her son’s mindlessness, pulled both of her kids out of the stalls and simply said to her son, “Can you please behave?” And that was it. She dragged her kids out of the bathroom, her son’s head dripping wet, and they went to find their seats.

And then I woke up and thought this:

I used to believe that progress via technology and science was part of human evolution. That consumerism, capitalism and massive development was a natural human progression. I used to believe that anthropological societies like tribal peoples in Australia, Africa and South America who didn’t move forward and adopt new technology like “Westerners” were not evolving. That their growth was in some way, stunted. But after reading Vine Deloria’s God is Red I now recognize our progress is part of the trajectory of Christianity, not evolution. Progress, science, technology, manifest destiny, forcefully overtaking new lands from non-Christian peoples– many of these are Christian concepts.

I also thought, that just like the boy sticking his head in the toilet, people do crazy things that are interpreted in all kinds of ways. Even though I can be horrified over something seemingly horrifying, someone else may simply be agitated. Which response is correct? Which is the “true” response. Answer: there isn’t one. There never is. One-thousand Frenchmen can be wrong.

I think that it is so difficult for us to accept new ways of living and different cultural attitudes because we are so mired down in judging people for not being what we believe they should be. We believe, like I did, that there is only one truth, one way, one direction. I now know this not to be the case. There are many ways to live and progress. Christianity is not “the” way, it is “one” way. And yet, just like the mother in the dream, if I tried to convince a Christian of this, I’d probably be looked at like I had four heads.

New Year’s Resolutions & Other Unnecessary (or Unattainable)Goals

December 31, 2010

I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t over eat, don’t eat too much junk, don’t need to lose weight, don’t need to get laid, don’t curse, don’t have any credit cards to pay down, don’t have any overarching goals to accomplish and don’t have any pressing, nagging changes that need to be made. So…my New Year’s resolutions are, at best, a mish mosh of half-hearted, conventional and unconventional, unnecessary but creative ideas I’d kinda like see come to fruition if I didn’t have other pressing issues at hand. In other words, here’s a list of wishes, not resolutions.

  • Complain less
  • Quit coffee
  • Have a nice black and white photo op done of D and I
  • Spend less
  • Save more
  • Spend less time on the computer
  • Visit/attend/become a member of a zen buddhist retreat center
  • Eat more raw foods
  • Get to the bottom of my indigestion issues
  • Sing more
  • Yell less at my kids
  • Take the online business certification course from Rutgers with my brother
  • Figure out what to do about grad school
  • Publish “Fertility” in a decent magazine
  • Maintain my sense of self
  • Relax
  • Work harder
  • Write more
  • Find a cause and support it continuously
  • Be more consistent with exercise
  • Go camping/rock climbing/ hiking
  • Go easy on the unsolicited advice
  • Remain neutral
  • Be more open-minded
  • Be patient (OK, now we’re getting into trying to change my personal nature- good luck with this one)
  • Be positive
  • Judge less
  • Let go
  • Take risks
  • Be more ambitious
  • Worry less…

Crossed off my list for good

December 31, 2010

My kids and I recently took an 8 hour drive up to Canada, just for kicks. We had nothing else to do for three days and thought it would be fun to just drive and hop a relatively close border. And it was. We got pulled over at border patrol, our car was searched, and I was told I needed “permission” from my ex to leave the country, which I knew, but forgot to get. They let us cross anyway and so, we made it to Ottawa by dinner.

We wandered down Dalhousie Street to Byward Market and amid a grouping of rather cool pubs (which I would have preferred in a pinch if I were with D) I noticed the slumping facade of the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh let’s go here! I immediately remembered my youthful self, circa 1989, and the envy of all my friends when I told them I’d not only been to the Hard Rock Cafe in NYC, but in London as well (remember the eighties when you collected visits to the Hard Rock Cafe and that made you so cool? And then that goofy Planet Hollywood came out and tried to whoop up the same fervor, but never really did, and you suddenly weren’t cool if you liked that place?).

Anyway, I thought my boys would love the HRC. And they did! But the truth is, the food was horrifying. Everything tasted fake and enhanced. J’s burger had that fake char-grilled smoke flavor on it. The sweet potato fries had some weird aftertaste and the salad had rubbery fake chicken, diced perfectly into tiny squares and yellowish white iceberg lettuce (who makes salads with just iceberg lettuce anymore?). On the walls were Britney Spear’s blue sequined shirt, Eminem’s high top sneakers (and maybe even his stinky socks), a turtleneck sweater from Alanis Morissette and a pair of ripped jeans from Shania Twain. Back in my day they had Ringo Starr’s drum pack, Jimmy Page’s guitar and Prince’s purple overcoat. Hard rock memorabilia that hung on the walls where famous people sat down and had a Guinness at the bar. The crowds now? People like me with their babies screaming and their kids running around tables, knocking over trays of rubbery chicken and greasy fries.

So, this got me thinking, firstly, that I will never go back to any Hard Rock Cafe, no matter how big the guitar above their front door. And secondly, that I will probably never go back to a long line of other crappy places. And so, this morning’s blog is my top ten “Crossed off my list for good” list. What’s on yours?

1. Hard Rock Cafe
2. Chuckie Cheese
3. Sahara Sam’s
4. Miniature Golfing (any of them!)
5. Medieval Times
6. Planet Hollywood (does this place even exist anymore?)
7. Gillette, Wyoming
8. Hostal Pedregalejo, Malaga Spain
9. Mars 2112
10. Midtown Manhattan during the Christmas holidays
11. Albuquerque, NM
12. “The Pub” in Pennsauken
13. The Berlin flea market
14. A bowling tournament
15. Being 142 lbs
16. Anywhere (except locally) on New Year’s Eve
17. Getting my hair bleached
18. A football game at any stadium
19. The Mummer’s Parade
20. Any parade…
21. Friday’s
22. The top of the Empire State Building

Escape to Canada

December 28, 2010


Crossing the border

Crossing the border

The thought has occurred to me more than once. Buy property in Canada, you know, if America gets a little nuts. Not that it hasn’t already. In fact, I probably should have left long ago. But here are a few links to some stunning homes– none of which I can afford– in Nova Scotia, just in case. So who’s with me? Who wants to chip in a buy one of these babies?

Dexter’s Tavern

Ocean Front, Rustic Charm

One of a Kind

Beautiful Family Home with Income


Hubbard’s Cove

Energy Efficient, Fireproof and Sound Proof

Sea King Point

Midtown Manhattan with kids and a neurotic, anxiety-ridden woman, filled with thoughts of imminent doom

December 18, 2010


D and I are taking the kids up to NYC today; Rockafella Center, FAO Schwartz, etc. etc. What to any normal human being is usually considered a fun day trip in the city, to me, it is a day spent quieting the obsessive voices of imminent doom and certain death that run through my brain while trying to appear normal and “happy.” That’s not to say I won’t entirely enjoy myself. I will. But I’ll have to work hard for it. I’ll have to fight what many would consider a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder. For example, it’s not a stretch for me to believe that there will be a terrorist around every street corner. A tall building will fall on my head. We will be mugged, shot, victimized, kidnapped, beat up. A bridge will collapse. A car bomb will explode. Someone will get lost. I will die. We’ll all die.

Luckily, this type of thinking doesn’t keep me home. It’s not so severe that I am unable to overcome it and get out of the house. I’m used to it. My little neighborhood street in the middle of no where is about to explode into a million tiny bits too, while I’m naked in the shower, of course. And yet, New York City is a scary place.

So, wish me luck today. And if you read this, Shhhhh…don’t tell D or my kids what’s going on inside my little ol’ brain. I’m going to try my best to pretend that I’m normal. Oh lookie there! It’s the tree!

I shop therefore I am

November 28, 2010

People in a retail store reaching to be the first to purchase a limited gaming system

Thank God Black Friday is finally over.  Every year it’s a sad reminder of the ugly side of human nature. The day that a good  “deal” can drive us to do disastrous things. Trample people. Steal from them. Even kill. All for the thrill of snatching up a limited edition Wii or an Xbox 360.

I often wonder though, if the whole concept of Black Friday is just a simple case of herd mentality, or if a majority of us are propelled by a relatively new evolving need to hoard stuff and buy? I mean, just as food is comfort, so is a day devoted to retail therapy, right? Nothing  identifies me more than my clothing style. And hell if I don’t have a plasma screen TV like everyone else on my block. I often wonder too if my love of French clothing, espresso makers and talavera tiles is nature or nurture. Is it so far fetched to believe our DNA has mutated to the point in evolution that shopping is now an instinct? Clothing is, after all, one of our top five necessary human resources. It’s up there with food, water, shelter and oxygen. But then, where does the purse hook, the pocket projector or the tattoo sleeve fit in? Especially when we’re going to wrap them up and give them to someone else.

In The Boston Review, Juliet Shor’s essay “The New Politics of Consumption” argues that we “Americans [have] been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down, artificial consumer culture, which yield[s] few true human satisfactions.” In “Consumerism in America,” Kendra Wright writes,  “Americans are consumed by consumerism.” She says, “Our belongings have become probably the most important part of our life. We are so possessed with our things that it seems we often forget what’s really important in life.” And a Newsweek article entitled, “America’s Crazed Consumerism” the author writes, “Uncontrollable consumerism has become a watchword of our culture despite regular and compelling calls for its end.”

And so here we are, stuffing our souls and dresser drawers with useless crap that 85% of the world’s population has probably never seen or heard of. Do you think societies in the Australian Outback would know what to do with a baby wipes warmer, a pair of laser guided scissors, or a fondu pot? If aliens landed on our planet, and walked through one of our shopping malls,what do you think they would surmise about human culture if they saw baby toupees, clothing for dogs, or the leopard print snuggie? We obviously no longer purchase on a needs basis anymore. According to “the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%.” That tells me that a huge percentage of our purchases go above and beyond the percentage required to simply cover our basic needs.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our common sense. We believed in Capitalism so much that we were willing to buy into the ads and the culture and the lies that told us the more we bought, the stronger we, as a Nation, would become. We believed it when they told us we’d be happier, stronger, more beautiful, better. We wanted happiness and perfection so badly, we believed Calvin Klein and Gap and Whirlpool and Kenmore. We bought into the idea that we all needed bell-bottoms, Beanie Babies, and  hand soap in a pump. And we wanted so desperately to keep up with the Joneses and fend off our own self-hatred and insecurity, that we (yes, me) believed in the plasma TV, the iPod touch and the HTC.

The author of “America’s Crazed Consumerism” summarizes the work of Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who argued that “the modern economy didn’t flourish by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by creating the desire for products consumers didn’t need at all.” Even Dorothy Parker once said, “people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.” We were told that if we don’t consume, others lose jobs, shops go out of business, our economy fails, the stock market crashes, we fail as a society. But if we do consume, we lose touch with our basic human dignity and succumb to false gods. We become something we probably never expected to become: a product.

At this time of year I always think of the Grinch and how he “stole” Christmas. Bad, ugly Mr. Grinch straps a pair of antlers on his little dog Max and steals all the Christmas stuff from the Whos down in Who-ville, for what purpose I’m not sure. On the surface, it’s to stop Christmas from coming. But in reality, the Grinch is probably somewhat of a cranky Marxist who believes that Capitalism is evil. OK. A stretch, perhaps. But the bigger message is that despite the Whos having nothing, they wake up Christmas morning and still sing their hearts out. Mr. Grinchy “hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” But the depressing reality is that Americans most likely wouldn’t be so happy without their stuff.  Would any of us really be able to celebrate a holiday without all the packages, boxes or bags? Are family and friends enough? These are good questions and ones that I am trying to get to the bottom of. I confess; I love stuff. But I’m willing to make sacrifices if it means altering the direction in which my DNA is mutating. Shopping does not have to be the “be all and end all” of my existence.

Day of excess or harmless holiday?

November 25, 2010

As we give thanks let us recognize that today is a rapaciously gluttonous day of celebrating the fact that we stole this land from Native Americans, raped it and wasted all  its precious resources and ultimately created a society of countrymen whose existence is based mostly on consumption and excess.  So, when you slather your bread with butter and dip it in turkey juice while simultaneously shoving corn and string bean casserole down your throat, be thankful that the best thing to come out of this culture is what’s left of a little Puritan guilt, and stretchy pants with elastic waistbands.

Did I get your attention?

OK, so I am not sure I think in such extremes. I am a grateful, happy girl. Able to be thankful on Thanksgiving and joyful of our bounty.  And yet,  I can’t help but wonder with obesity rates being so high in this country, mass consumption as our lifeblood, impending global warming and a population explosion that will double in twenty more year, that maybe, we might want to rethink the concept of Thanksgiving and Christmas and how we celebrate.  Do we really need all this STUFF to say that we appreciate our country, that we’re thankful for our friends and family, and that we honor our faith? Is minimalism such a bad thing?

For Christmas this year, my family has cut huge corners. The excessive gift giving over the past decade has been a mark of our good fortune, but at the same time, it has made many of us feel , well, slightly excessive and wasteful. We sat around the dinner table one Sunday and passed around ideas: we were buying gifts for others just for the sake a purchasing something. Did anyone really needed a Fry Daddy, or a lava lamp or a battery-operated neck pillow heater  thingy that you could use on a plane? Most gifts ended up in a garage sale anyway, sold for fifty cents. So, we decided to just buy toys for the kids and that the adults would do a book exchange. For a couple years everyone bought and wrapped up a book that either got read or didn’t. But even then, we still felt as though we were wasting. (Ok, so maybe my family has a little more of that Puritan guilt than others!)

This year, however, we decided we are only spending $20 on each kids and instead of buying a book for the book exchange, we will simply dig into our libraries (we’re all readers) and wrap up a book we already own. Despite the fact that others may accuse us of being cheap, I love this idea. It feels good. And  our holiday becomes more about what is essential rather than what can be bought.

Last year on FB one of my friends posted a picture of their Christmas tree. It had what looked like THOUSANDS of presents under it. It was a pretty picture indeed and looked like most of my trees from Christmas past, and yet, the more I thought about it, the more the idea kinda grossed me out.  Sure, all those gifts under a sparkly tree look Hollywood and Disneyesque. But are they necessary? Are they real? What are we teaching our children about Christmas? About tradition? About celebration? That these ideas revolve around our purchasing power? That STUFF is the meaning of life? I may be wrong but I haven’t met a kid yet who didn’t feel entitled to a gift bag or a present of his own at someone else’s birthday party.

Thing is, we are living in a changing world where we need to begin to recognize that all this stuff is simply too much. It’s cluttering up the planet, ending up in a landfill or being shot out into space with more space junk, causing trouble. What’s so wrong in cutting back? What’s so wrong in validating your children and your family members in other ways? Is our worth, value and identity so wrapped up in gift giving and product consumption that we no longer see the benefit in modesty, moderation and self-restraint? Heck, the reality is that a day or two after Christmas, my kids are back outside playing with sticks — the cheapest,  most versatile universal toy known to man, chimp and  higher brain functioning animal.

Look, I can’t lie. Every Thanksgiving it’s hard for me to resist pigging out. And every Christmas I want my kids to have that fantasy, that perfect Christmas morning where they come running down the stairs into the living room to see a tree lit up in the darkness, abundant with pretty packages and wrapped gifts. When I was a kid we had both– there were years when we had plenty and years when we had few. Of course, I preferred the years of plenty. They were a mark of validation– they meant that my mother and father loved me more those years and that Santa thought I was “good.” Those years also marked the fact that mother and father were happy (unlike the leaner years when my mother would cry), and that everything was going to be alright. But the truth is, whether I had lots or little the one constant was the love of my family. And whether or not I had a deeper understanding back then of the fact that we can all be so easily manipulated by STUFF, I certainly recognize it now. I am no better or worse with or without stuff and I can only hope to pass that concept on to my kids. We are not the sum of what we pick up during our shopping sprees. Our worth is based on something deeper. Mine is and yours is. There are new babies in our family; we are healthy; we all get along; no one is hungry. And this year, I am thankful that I am a few steps closer to recognizing that those are the true gifts of life.

Now, pass the sweet potatoes…

Confession Mondays: my coffee addiction

November 8, 2010

So, I made my re-entry back into the world of coffee without much of a glitch, save a bit of shame for being such a hypocrite, telling the world I would never drink “the crap” again. I had originally quit because of headaches and a near-complete dependence on the stuff, a la a pure substance abuse. I couldn’t wake up without it. I couldn’t get through my day without a second hit. And I couldn’t feel a part of American culture if, like everyone else, I didn’t have a tall soy latte in my hand while coursing my way through an intersection.

I had made it an entire month without it, and felt pretty good, despite some migraines the first week, for which I needed to see a doctor.  I substituted with green Kombucha tea, Yerba Mate and red rooibos–all of which did weird things to me. But, soon enough, I felt cleansed, unpolluted, alert, and mostly, free from the ritual of having to hunt down a Starbuck’s every where I went so as to recharge and make me feel part of humanity again. But my digestive tract had become so dependent on the caffeine (from roughly 300 mgs per day down to about 25 mgs or less) that for the entire month, horribly unmentionable things were happening to me. OK, I’ll mention them: burping, belching, farting, constipation, IBS and so on. Not only that, but, without caffeine, I craved bad foods. Usually my diet is very healthy: slow-cooked oats for breakfast, salad for lunch, chicken, veggies and a starch for dinner. Every once in a while  I’d have a sweet. But when I stopped drinking coffee, it was as if I had this Get Out of Jail Free card for eating burgers, fries, potato chips (something I NEVER eat), crackers, and other junk. It’s as if there was this yin and yang within me…pulling at me to do something bad to counteract all the good I was accomplishing. There’s only so much a green tea and Andrew Weil a girl can take, you know. I was too cleansed, too pure, too unpolluted. Not to mention all my friends were on my case, insisting that I needed a vice. “Live a little,” they said. As if drinking coffee, and vices in general are the mark of a satisfying life.

In a way, they were right. Coffee keeps me balanced. And  I don’t mean my digestive tract. Coffee keeps the bad girl in me alive. It keeps me a little sullied, a little uninhibited, a little wild.

My sis-in-law was over last night and we were discussing the documentary “Babies.” She was saying that too much care can cause an individual to weaken. Too much hand sanitizer, for example, can keep us over-protected from being able to build up an immunity to viruses and bacteria. In that sense, I’d like to think that my coffee addiction keeps me dirty enough that I can actually exist among society.

But the truth is, I’ve decided to try quitting again, after the holidays, when I can spend a month or two alone, isolated and insulated from the rest of the world. Detoxing is a slow, meticulous process, which needs time and patience. And the fact of the matter is, I feel better without it, physically and mentally. And though I’m sure to substitute my bad girl coffee habit with something equally bad (shoplifting? sex addiction? loitering in front of the “No Loitering” signs around town?), at least I will no longer be a slave to the ritual or dependent upon a substance that has a little too much control over my life.

But for now, the coffee maker is brewing my usual french roast and my Starbuck’s card is fully loaded and ready to be swiped.

Why Americans voted for the GOP

November 3, 2010

I truly don’t understand the mentality of my countrymen, save to say that corporate America and the media have more control over us than we may think. The blight of Capitalism is its egocentricity and “out to win big” mentality, where rampant irresponsibility and no accountability reigns. Soda machines in grade-school cafeterias. Nitrates in hotdogs. Adding more sugar to cereals, all the while marketing them as “Whole grain goodness.” Building cheap parts for cars so they’re guaranteed to fall apart faster. Streamlining every imaginable boutique drug to the point where we truly begin to believe that drugs are a part of the human experience. Releasing songs about a man who loves a woman so much he must burn her as she sleeps in her own bed so that no one else can have her. Cigarettes. McDonald’s. Gatorade. Hummers. Coffee.

When corporations and wealthy “donors” who sway elections do so for their own interests, the human element is lost; humanity is lost. And the only thing that’s put in its place is the lie that purchasing goods will save our souls.

In Dan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom” his protagonist Walter who’s an environmentalist tries to save this rather decent-sized tract of land for the Warbler, a migrant bird that’s not even on the endangered species list. To do so, he has to displace about 200 people from their homes along the mountain top – a place where families have lived for generations and have buried their dead. But the underlying point of saving the land for the bird is for a wealthy “friend of the Bushs and Cheneys” to begin mountain top removal mining for coal. The underlying message Franzen sends his readers is not so much that it’s wrong to displace people for the sake of coal mining. That is the obvious message. But that the displaced people themselves are part of the problem in that they allow corporations to take over, and they sell out for the promise of money and “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens,” and the ability to move into the middle class. Franzen’s message is that family, land, earth, tradition are no longer enough to sustain us; we no longer believe in simplistic values, but rather in money, immediate gratification and consumerism.

And that, right there, is the basic hook of Capitalism: you too can be middle class and have a decent salary and buy, buy, buy, if only you let us do whatever it is we want to do without you asking any questions. Because the American dream, after all, is to keep up with the Joneses and to buy a house and a plasma screen TV and have two cars in the driveway and two kids. Why just yesterday, one of my FB friends said, “I vote with my wallet.”

And so, the Republicans gained control of the House last night. Their agendas can finally be met and big business can once again prosper and we can once again earn our incomes and consume more products. We had such high hopes for Obama and in our impatience for him to fix everything, we ousted him, if only in voting for the Reps during the midterm elections. Have we lost sight of the Bush years? Have we forgotten that Bush, dare I say it, got us into this mess in the first place? Or is there a deeper, more troubling specter that is to blame for America’s free fall from our happy place? Could it be that we have reached the point where the vestiges of a real life are being replaced by a more desultory one?

As Camille Paglia once wrote: “Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”

Again, our relentless pursuit of consumer goods and the fact that they’ve been denied us since 2008 may be playing a bigger role than we’d like to think. Let’s face it, we want our purchasing power back. In today’s NYT Op Ed section, even Timothy Egan writes, “Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.”

So what does all this mean to me? It means that the gap between one side of the country and the other seems to be getting wider. It means that people’s incentives for happiness needs to be a little less superficial. And it means that I, within myself, will be more aware of resisting the dangling carrot of consumerism as best I can, and not be so easily swayed, misled, or seduced by the mindless, sugar-coated world of a whole grain box of cereal or a Starbuck’s coffee. It means making sure I keep what is truly of value in perspective and never put the illusion of money as the American Dream above what really matters: the future of this planet, my lifelong friends, and my family.

Confession Mondays: Debt victims

November 1, 2010

I don’t even know where to begin, Dick. For starters, the whole “victim” mentality is so not happening for me. That’s very 1980’s. Second, is that your metaphor of children swallowing toys is just not a very strong one. WE ARE NOT CHILDREN. Perhaps that’s the problem here. When we think of big old banks doing bad things TO us, and we imagine we have no control over what they do (i.e. dish out high risk debt) then, sure, we are all victims. We are enslaved. And yet, how is it that some of us aren’t victimized by banks while others are?

For the record, I am 40. I have existed in every tax-bracket imaginable. My father was a brilliant manipulator of the system and I saw how he used it to his advantage. I also saw how banks can fall a part when an individual takes control of his own credit and financial situation. Individuals have HUGE amounts of power that they don’t even realize. We are not victims, Dick. And when we stop thinking as victims we are able to change the paradigms that have us believing we are enslaved.

You seem like a smart guy. And I appreciate an intelligent, non-hostile discussion with you. But you’re idea of me being an extreme libertarian is way off. And your tale of people being punished for wanting to eat a good meal is too. I have had many good meals in my life. The best were paid in cash. And if I didn’t have the money, I ate at home. Simple mathematics.

I’m going out on a limb here and bringing in the possibility that this angst toward the debt crisis is due in part to people’s own shame at having let things get so out of control. As we try to keep up with the Joneses we see consumerism as more essential than good credit and we end up getting buried in debt. Once that happens, we look for any way out and we look for others to blame. Now that more people are recognizing the ugly side to banking and credit, the banks have suddenly become the perfect scapegoat for all our financial woes. It makes us feel better, mentally and emotionally, to know all this debt we’re buried under isn’t our “fault.” it’s someone else’s fault. We’re just a victim.

That kind of thinking is detrimental to the self AND to the economy as a whole because once we give up our responsibility to our own debt and put others in charge, we are susceptible to becoming victims. When we put others in charge, they do not make decisions based on our best interest but theirs. And on and on…

No one snowflake ever feels responsible for the avalanche. Maybe it’s time we start.

Sexy Montreal-Updated

October 21, 2010

Photo of old Montreal

The last time I was in Montreal I was 20. I went to visit five of my favorite guy friends whom I’d met the previous summer in Wildwood working at the T-shirt shops that lined the boardwalk– they were guys who lived in Montreal, but worked during the summer at the Jersey shore. When they invited me, in the fall of ’88,  I couldn’t say no. I booked a Greyhound bus, cut all my classes and fled the country.  Once there, I was entertained daily– all expenses paid– shopping, meals out, sexy hook-ups, and every night a new, trendy disco or bar like the Metropolis, Pow-Wow or Peel Pub. We hung out at McGill University, smoked Cuban cigars (real ones) and drank ourselves silly.

So, when D mentioned a long weekend in Montreal, I was game.

But this time, things would be a little different. Instead of crazy, twentysomething drunken fun with five guy friends, this time it would be sophistication and love with one man. Add a spa, a Russian restaurant and maybe even a little something fringe, and well…You get the idea.

Here are some of mine and D’s plans…

1. First things first— the hotel. A Suite with French doors separating bedroom from living area and view of the street. D chose Le Saint Sulpice, whose name coincidentally is the same as a little Parisian cafe I used to frequent on my way to school.

UPDATE: Le Saint Sulpice was everything I hoped it would be. Service was friendly, room was big and cozy. We even lit a fire and candles. Shower was huge. Everything was immaculate. And decor was pure five-star.

2. The spa— We’re booked at Scandinave, Les Bains for hot stone massages. But too bad we’ll have to pass on this one. Studio Beaute du Monde is Montreal’s only traditional Hamman. Maybe next time.

UPDATE: I’m glad we didn’t pass on this place. But I need to make a clarification. This was more of a bath house or thermal spa than a traditional spa as there are no extended beauty treatments. You merely use the pools, sauna and steam room as relaxation and energy therapy; and then after, you can choose from a hot stone massage or a swedish massage. By accident, I got the hot stone and D got the swedish (it should have been reversed). I didn’t think a hot stone massage was anything more than clever marketing, and for the most part, I still believe that. But Brigitte was an incredible masseuse and I ended up falling asleep on the table.

3. Food— There’s a nice little oyster bar and bistro on the St. Lawrence River called Narcisse. We’ve made reservation there. But for some strange reason, I have a craving for Russian. Could it be because of my old friend Vladimir Ostrovski who was from Russia, moved to Montreal, then became a masseuse in Isreal? Who knows. But check out Troika. Looks very Dostoevsky. IzyskannyǏ

UPDATE: We never made it to Narcisse. They had too many eccentric menu items and I was really in the mood for something a little more down to earth. Besides, the atmosphere was cold and contemporary and we were up for warm and cozy. So, we chose Galianos instead. Atmosphere was great, service was outstanding, but the food was only OK. Rustic, Italian pasta dishes and heavy meals like chicken parm made it seem more like an Olive Garden instead. Then again, I think we’re both kinda burnt out on Italian.

As for Troika, it was not what I expected, and yet, it wasn’t half bad. The experience turned out to be something uniquely quirky. There was only one small, no frills dining room with Greek diner-style mirrored paneling. Red velvet booths around the perimeter. And a disco ball hanging loosely from the ceiling, throwing out light dots on all our faces. We sat next to an old Yiddish  family  who were drinking vodkas and wine and singing along with the violinist who played Russian and, I’m assuming, Baltic tunes from the old days; music these folks probably grew up with. At any rate, we waiting a very long time for the food. It almost seemed as if we were dining along with everyone else and had to wait for the others to finish their appetizers before they’d serve us our main plates. D had chicken and I had some pasta dish with salmon and caviar. I washed it down with a vodka and felt satisfied with my Russian experience.

4. Fun— What better way to experience sexy Montreal than stopping by (Don’t click this link with the kids aroundChez Parée with a few dollar bills in our hand?

UPDATE: Chez Paree was a big disappointment. All the girls looked like something from Jersey Shore; our drinks were watered down too. We bailed out early and went back to the hotel for some of our own sexiness. Ahhh…much better!

5. Shopping— As if all that weren’t enough…there’s shopping.  Sexy lingerie at Deuxième Peau. market shopping at Le Faubourg. And, of course, designer apparel on Ste-Catherine and Saint Laurent Streets. This place might just force me to start using my credit cards.

UPDATE: Never made it to the lingerie shops, but walked down St. Catherine’s Street (under construction) and into Eaton shopping mall. As I had feared there was nothing more than typical American mall stores– DKNY, Fossil, GAP, Marc Jacob, Zara, etc. etc. The most interesting shops were those on the opposite side of the street with kitchy tourist crap from Canada’s Inuit country. But sadly you had to weed through the furry Alpaca sweaters with airbrushed wolves and Indians on them to get to the good stuff. Who buys those things anyway?

Teenage Angst: know thyself

October 1, 2010

Friday morning and the tweenage angst is in full force. My one son yelled at me for not letting him bike to school in a downpour; the other whined about not wanting to go to school at all.

“I hate school,” he said.

“Well, how come just yesterday you were pumping iron in the garage at seven in the morning, putting on loads of deodorant and couldn’t get out the door fast enough?”

“That’s different. That’s for a girl who happens to be at school. Everything else is just nonsense.”

“Oh, I see.”

Anyway, at least they are attempting to know themselves. As for me…I seemed to be pretty confused at their age, as these poems attest. I don’t think I need to get too analytical with them. It’s safe to say that they are pure embarrassment.

1. (c. 1984)

Y’know I was just thinking
Bout what I believe
Kinda hippy, peace, love
Put on earth for me to receive

This world I don’t find easy
But I’m doing the best I can
God, you know I don’t belong here
This generation I can’t undertand

Feels like I’m in the dark
A misfit in the light
Honey, everybody knows I’d be better off
Just coming out at night

These days aren’t mine
It’s hard to believe in peace
In a world full of hate
My world long ago ceased.

2. (c. 1984)

This one is a little deeper, and more philosophical …

Finding yourself
Is like going on a trip.
You just travel,
Not knowing where you’re going
But somehow you just end up there.

3. (c. 1986)

This one seems to be profoundly existential and probing. And yet, teacher’s comments were discouraging: “This needs work,”  (to put it lightly). I guess I was grateful that the other poems, which presumably were turned in with this one, didn’t have the same comment on them and thus, were works of genius.

If I Never

To die.
To never breathe again
If I never drank from the rivers of peace
Never smiled at the trees
Or drew my expressions
Painted them onto my canvass
if I never felt the beauty of the sky
Never felt the heat or cold
If I never got out of bed and did
the stuff that I usually do
If I never…
I wouldn’t be.

Teenage Angst: Cheap wine and bad metaphors

September 27, 2010

I’m thinking of changing the name of this column from Teenage Angst to What Was I Thinking? Didn’t anyone in Creative Writing class teach me the difference between a good metaphor and a bad one?

Making Wine

I toast a glass full of the finest
To your smile.
I let the glass touch my crimson
Lips when you laugh
And I taste the sweet redness
Of wine when you say
You love me
The glass shimmering and glistening
When I place it on the table
And you hold my hand
The beads of water
Lose their perfection
When they drip down the crystal
As I kiss your lips
And then the once passionate wine
Turns a sinful bitter
When we make love.
The delicate crystal topples and
Wine pours out on the table
When we’re through
The goblet shatters as it
Smashes to the wooden floor
And then you leave
And you never come back.

(Age: 17)

Teenage Angst: Letter to a friend and writer

September 25, 2010

Teenage Angst is my latest column. It occurred to me, via my tweenagers and all their emotional drama, that I had some pretty ugly drama of my own as a kid, and that revisiting it might help me to have a little more compassion for what they might be going through. Granted,  my delivery sucked, despite believing I was a poetess and would-be famed writer.  But that’s the whole point of this blog. To expose the absolute worst stuff anyone has ever written and laugh, laugh, laugh.  By the way, I’m not the only one. When I posted this on Facebook a friend of mine sent me a link to a reading series called Cringe out of NY and London.  Feel free to check them out and by all means, if you have horrible stuff of your own…share it here in a comment!

The below was a letter I wrote to a high school friend. She was the only other person I knew at the time who also wanted to be a writer. I had been in college for a semester or two and missed her. Glad I never sent this back then. Sounds a little stalkerish. But this one’s for you, Suki! Oh yes, and if you can figure out what some of the embarrassingly misused words actually mean, let me know. Pasty?

Dearest Suki,

This is somewhat of a pasty attempt of a letter. Yes, I am in college. Forgive me for not writing for so long…it’s just that things have been tough. So, now I’m taking advantage of my placid disposition. How are things with you? Can you believe I’m the only dedicated writer in my school (that I know of)? It’s very disappointing; kinda awkward. But, if my sanity prevails, I WILL CONQUER! I miss reading your things. Sometimes I sit, moping around my prison cell (dorm room) and read and re-read some of the few poems you’ve left with me. It is quite depressing if I may say so myself. It’s really traumatic not to be able to express myself in public, so I take it out on these unimportant letters. I should have listened to Miss Shaw earlier and applied to writing schools. Please, if anything, don’t make the same mistake as I! I am, though, getting involved in art and going to museums in  NYC. African art is my preference. Well, I really wish to hear from you…SEND POEMS. PLease! It will help me to remember who I am and what I want to be. Gotta get to class.

PS. Tell Ms. Shaw and “Magnum” I say hello.



September 1, 2010

1. Fact: There is a man who is planning on jumping out of a hot air balloon from 120,000 feet. He calls himself “God of the skies.” If he makes it he’ll be the first human to travel the speed of sound.

2. Speed:

Light : 670,616,629 mph

The X-43A Scramjet drone: 7,000 mph

The North American X-15:  4,510 mph

Sound:  768 mph

A Boeing 747 : 605 mph

The Bugatti Veyron : 267 mph

A wind gust on top of Mount Washington in 1934: 231mph

Sam Whittingham on a bicycle : 83 mph

An African cheetah:  70 mph

Usain St. Leo Bolt: 23.72 mph

A cockroach: 3 mph

Hair: 6 inches per year

3. Falling in love happens at the speed of light. Or like a plunge that occurs at the speed of sound. Or at the rate of growth of hair. In my case, love arrives like glass, like a slow moving liquid, a crystal, that isn’t really liquid at all, but instead a solid full of defects and orderlessness that moves so slowly, that for years, we believe the illusion that it’s not moving at all.

4. It happens the way a jagged, disfigured rock is made smooth by a loving ocean. It happens at the rate of speed that a volcanic island is formed and flowers burst from its cool, black pumice.

5. The point is, it happens . And this is how it happened.

This is the beginning of a new CNF (Creative Nonfiction) piece I will try to work on during the fall semester. It’s inspired by Bluets, by Maggie Nelson.

Confession Mondays: Bad girl, guilty conscience

August 24, 2010

globeIt’s the shower that gets me every time. As soon as I get in there I can’t get out. And as the clock is ticking and the H2O is washing down the drain, my brain can’t let go of the fact that I’m wasting water.

Then there’s Meatless Mondays. Another one blown to a meatball parm sandwich from the pizza shop. I should be eating salads all day.

And the guilt from all the paper I waste.  Just yesterday I made 320 copies for two classrooms and despite making sure all copies were back and front, the heavy weight of remorse is on me.

With all this new environmental awareness comes a sense of self-condemnation for what may be, in the big scheme of things, a small amount of necessary waste. My conscience, however, believes otherwise. In my mind my behavior is extravagant, imprudent thriftlessness. Even the thought of buying a new pair of shoes or a new outfit has me feeling disgusted with myself. Another pair of shoes, bitch? Seventy isn’t enough?

Last week, right at the end of blueberry season in New Jersey (where I reside), I went to the grocery store for blueberries, late at night. I had a craving to make a blueberry pie in the morning and didn’t want to run out early, but instead be prepared to just wake and bake. The fact that I sold myself out to get them from the grocery store was bad enough. But worse than that was that the only blueberries they offered were from Canada. Not only were these blueberries not from Jersey (during blueberry season!), but they were from a foreign country. And what made it really, really, super evil was that I bought them anyway.

We need a Super Hero in the neighborhood, “Guilty Conscience Man” who comes out of the sky, descends upon us and saves us from our own bad behavior.

When I was a kid, I never thought there’d be a time in my life where I’d punish myself for buying certain foods from a grocery store, or for feeling guilty in the shower, or for eating too much meat. And I guess I was wondering if anyone else out there felt the same. Do you have a little environmentalist guy sitting on your shoulder whispering in your ear…”Don’t water your grass,” or “Turn off those lights,” or “ Why did you buy your school supplies at Wal-Mart? You promised me you’d boycott that corporate hell.”

Until GC Man arrives on the scene, and instead of flagellating myself, I’ve decided to volunteer at my local farmer’s market. I’m hoping that will offset my bad behavior and alleviate some of this guilt. But the truth is, I miss the old days when a guilty conscience was earned by partaking in truly guilty pleasures– sex on the Eiffel tower, running away from home in nothing more than lingerie and an overcoat, smoking pot on my parents’ roof. Not buying blueberries from Canada or eating a hamburger on Monday.

Help me figure out what to write next!

August 4, 2010

Where do I begin? I am lost. I have about 17 unfinished projects on my desktop and no inclination as to where to begin or what to tackle next. This is what I’ve got….

  • A story about a husband who loses his job due to the recession and so he takes another  job as a singing banana telegram. But things go awry and he refuses to take off his costume to the point where it starts to jeopardize his marriage. (fiction)
  • A story about a woman who goes nuts trying to have a baby (this is in editing stage) Fertility (fiction)
  • Boob Girl (personal essay): about breasts and identity
  • Boob Job (personal essay): breasts and how they have shaped a life
  • Joe Boxer (personal essay): this may be finished, may not…about a pair of stray underwear I found in the laundry one day
  • Bits and Pieces of a Marriage (fiction): a collection of one page flash fiction pieces that create a larger work about the end of a marriage but the beginning of a woman
  • Oacoma (fiction): about a woman and her son
  • Greenland (fiction/personal essay/creative non-fiction): travels, tales of bartending on the ice cap
  • B, the story of a 17-year-old who loses her virginity (fiction)
  • Twelve (a story of the meaning of the number 12)
  • Where Refrigerators go to die: about a Brazilian cleaning lady obsessed with labels.
  • How Ed did it: personal essay about growing up with a con man as a father
  • Mary Jane: a story about my father’s love slave
  • Money: personal essay about growing up with a con man as a father
  • The Love Addict (fiction) (could be combined with “B” (see above)
  • Untitled 1 (A road trip about a retired couple who decide to separate or stay together) (fiction)

And on and on….none of these are even remotely finished. HELP! WHat sounds remotely interesting. I need someone to tell me what to do!

Madrid al cielo

July 28, 2010

Look up, man. Not down.

A man with blood on his knuckles and his eyes on some weird kind of crack is riding the Metro. There is a homeless woman swathed in black who ask for centimes. A Peruvian immigrant down the calle Monte Perdido yells at her two sons, making them cry; neither of her children are  wearing shoes in a street with dog shit on every block, smeared in the crevices of paved lattice concrete. A Cerveceria strewn with rolled up, discarded napkins after the morning rush hour of cafe con leche and a bollo is quiet. Old men who gather on a bench infront of the Ajuntamiento, brown and wrinkled from the sun, discuss the end of the bullfight, and perhaps, how strange and foreign the world is now.

“Franco is laughing from the grave!”

There is a paradox here: there is the constant smell of bad sewage and body odor and cigarette smoke mixed with the smell of baking bread and olive trees, lemons and French perfumes on rich ladies who shop at the Corte Ingles. There is a deep, burning beauty in the eyes of a young gitana who wears a red flower in her hair and swooshes an abanico in her dark hand. People are hot from the sun in Madrid. They’re thirsty. Some are hungry, suffering. But the suffering is like a season that lifts when the air is cool and a family who loves gathers by a window open to the sky.

Little girl stuff

July 13, 2010

A page from my first journal

NPR is doing this awesome project called The Hidden World of Girls. So, dig up your old diaries and share them. The one I chose probably shows my best work at age eleven (Yeah, sad, I know). I sound so laid back, don’t I, when it comes to rejection? At least that’s what I wanted all my fans to believe…

Confession Mondays: Ego is an illusion

July 12, 2010

Last night I dreamt that I was imprisoned in a dying world whose only news stories recounted tales of impending doom.  When I woke up I thought, wait a second; something sounds familiar!?  I was still angry with L for her doomsday post. I held her accountable for the way I reacted to it. Should I have? I’m not sure.

Quick background: A Facebook friend of mine posted an article from a not-so-reputable online magazine stating that the world would blow up in six months. I had just woken up, decided to click the link, read the article and I was henceforth depressed for hours, until D calmed me down by putting things into perspective. But I was truly pissed off that anyone would post such a miserable, gratuitous article, especially after it made them so depressed. Why do that? You’re in pain and suffering and so wish it upon others?

The egocentrism of the world is that people believe they can express themselves any way they want. They claim their “voice” and whatever else comes out of them is art. Part of the process of self discovery and sharing. And while that’s true for the young (“Wow! Look that at that big turd I just dropped in the toilet!”), adults should be able to decipher the difference between crap and true creation. The deeper, more penetrating aspect of art is not the art for art’s sake, but the influence it has on others and the consequences it causes.

Some forms of RAP music, horror films, gratuitous violence in movies, violent porn, glamorizing serial killers, etc. These things don’t just expose the ugly side of life so as to incite change or to educate for the purpose of better understanding. These things are self-serving, degenerate expressions of the human psyche whose creators do not take into consideration how their art may negatively affect others.

I’m all for “finding” your voice and creating all forms of art–good, bad, hard to look at etc. But I believe people need to respect the fact that Voice is a powerful tool capable of influence. One voice has the power to give joy or take it away. Finding your voice and expressing yourself for expression’s sake is one thing. Reigning in that voice, taking responsibility for it and knowing how to use it is a far greater talent.

So I told L yesterday two things:

Share joy not misery. The propagation of “doomsday” literature is rather pointless. I can understand when people post ugly, depressing news about stuff we have control over and can change. Scary news that serves as a wake up call to take action. But the stuff we don’t have control over? Why bother posting it? The only purpose it serves is to depress, scare and hurt others, especially those more easily influenced by their emotions.

She didn’t appreciate that. She responded with:

I am…sorry for being so frank – but within certain OBVIOUS limitations, (things which we agree not to share and discuss as a society, for the protection of others) I am striving to find my own voice and will be the one who controls what I say and what I don’t.

To which I replied:

We all have enormous power when it comes to influencing others by what we choose to post. It is a challenge to you and others…if you had a choice to make people laugh today or feel miserable, which would you choose? We are not just floating bodies, disconnected from each other, able to do and say as we please without it affecting others. Sure you can say anything you want! Freedom of speech. But we are all connected. Your actions affect us all.

Bottom line? If something depresses you, and there’s literally NO POINT in its message why pass that depressing news on and in turn be the creator of depression in others?

Am I completely off the mark here? The ego is an illusion. We are all connected. Why can’t people see that when a river dries up in Africa, a sunset dies in Florida?

Book Fetish

July 7, 2010

More a collector than a reader

Books to be returned…

Once I read a book, that’s it. I’m done. It’s not that I haven’t absolutely loved certain books– The Red and the Black, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Tao of Pooh, Tropic of Cancer, The Sheltering Sky, On the Road, White Oleander, The Book of Ruth, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mademoiselle du Maupin, Madame Bovary, Leo Buscaglia’s “Living, Loving, Learning,” Anaȉs Nin’s “Journal of a Wife,” etc.– but there are far too many new books out there that I simply can’t justify re-reading anything.

Collecting books is a different story…I have a true fetish for books. In fact, I have about seven different editions of The Red and the Black. If there’s anything I’ve read more than once, it’s probably that.

Confession Mondays: it’s hotter than the Georgia asphalt

July 5, 2010

David Davies' "A Hot Day"

To this day I still pride myself on not having central air in my house. For one, I enjoy windows open, birds singing, crickets chirping, cicadas whirring. You can’t hear a damn thing except a rattling air conditioning unit when the air on. That seems to take away all the glamour of living and suffering through the heat.

Besides, there’s something deeply romantic and Hollywood about the heat:

Sailor and Lula rage on about the heat in Wild at Heart.

Mister Senior Love Daddy confirms it over the radio in Do the Right Thing.

Dennis Hopper wipes his brow from it several times during Easy Rider

It’s an omnipresent theme in The Sheltering Sky

But today it’s going up to 101 degrees in parts of Jersey, and we’re not talking dry heat where it’s cool in the shade. This is wet, humid heat, with no escaping; where the air feels thick and heavy like a giant boot crushing you. Air as still and soundless through the heavy limbs of trees like black oil spreading stagnant across  a dead pool.

Ain’t no sense in suffering through that. So, last night, my wonderful boyfriend installed a wall unit in my bedroom, and with the kids on the floor, and I in my bed, we slept in relative coolness.

I’m not all that proud of myself for giving in. But sadly, I’m getting older and the world is getting hotter.

My Favorite Mistake

July 1, 2010

Helicopter View over Greenland

Greenland. I probably never should have gone, and it was something akin to prison for the criminally and alcoholically insane. Cold and lonely as hell too. But it was worth it if only for the stories I can now tell. Read: The Caribou Club

Mat Johnson

June 29, 2010

Here’s today’s intro for Mat Johnson, who gave an awesome workshop and told a great tale during his reading this afternoon. Look him up. Buy his books. Twitter him now.

I met Mat Johnson several years ago when he was teaching at Rutgers University. I was an undergrad at the time, working on Painted Bride Quarterly. And although I never had the pleasure of attending one of his classes, I have this great memory etched in my brain, that I wanted to share as a way of introducing this wonderful author. I was standing in the hall, on the fourth floor, outside one of the English Department offices and I was talking to a bunch of other English majors and professors and we were having this conversation about Mat, as to whether he was going to stay at Rugers, I believe, or return to Bard. Because you know, at that time, (2002-2003) Mat Johnson was roughly 30 years old, his first novel Drop had been chosen as a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selection, Interview Magazine named him a “Writer on the Verge” and his second novel “Hunting in Harlem” was due for release. So, it’s no wonder we were all so infatuated with Mat. And as we were huddled in the hall, he unexpectedly walks by in his chummy,  affable way and he leans in and asks, “What are you talking about?” never realizing we were talking about him. Of course we were all thoroughly humiliated. And the subject was probably “dropped” or changed to something else.

But I think that story illustrates Mat’s great personality, and success as a writer by the amount of respect and awe we as students had for someone that struggled to achieve his dreams.

Mat Johnson’s life, his “story” is an American story- one of a boy who barely passed school with Ds, barely got into a local state college, but eventually realize his potential and began working towards goals. And after several years of international travel, a little poverty, and sleeping on his mother’s sofa in Anchorage Alaska, he was accepted to Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program where he received his MFA in creative writing and began Drop, a “coming of age novel about a self-hating Philadelphian who thinks he’s found the perfect escape in a job in London.” This novel, published in 2000, was voted Progressive Magazine’s “Best Novels of the Year.” And one in which I, to this day, still recommend.

In 2003 he published Hunting in Harlem, in 2007 The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, and in 2009, his first graphic novel, “Incognegro,” the tale of an African American journalist who “passes” as white in the 1930s South so as to investigate the murder charge against his brother, was released. It has been described as “smart, pulpy and fast-paced” by Publishers Weekly.

Mat Johnson  has taught at Rutgers University, Columbia University, Bard College and the University of Houston where he teaches currently. He was also named a 2007 James Baldwin Fellow.

Aside from five published novels, inspiring academic achievements, many awards and a growing number of English major fans, Mat Johnson, as memory serves,  is also a great guy.

Confession Mondays: Guilty Pleasure

June 28, 2010

Self-help books. I love self-help books. There. I said it.

I want my name back

June 25, 2010

I can share. Especially when it comes to my last name. In high school I sat next to a girl named Kristie Shields and though we had nothing in common (She was a hood, I was a punk. She had crackly, over-dyed reddish hair and crooked teeth; I had poofy 80’s hair; I’d just gotten my braces off ), I still thought it was kind of fun that we had identical last names. Same with Brooke Shields. She was a big star when I was a kid and it was a regular omission of mine to admit we were not related. In fact, my cousin played a similar trick on me of the variety that I’d play on others. He said he sat next to Brooke Shields while taking the entrance exam to Princeton as they were the same age, going into college the same year. Y’know, we sat alphabetically? I believed him. And to this day, I still don’t know if it really happened.

Really, reality, sharing last names: I had the privilege to meet David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at Thursday’s Writers Conference. L picked him up at the train station and he slept the whole way over, and so our hopes seemed dashed that he’d make a decent presentation of himself during his creative non-fiction workshop. Since this conference started, we students huddle expectantly at the door of the classroom, amazingly high on hopes of being dazzled, blown away, awed, stupefied. We want our money’s worth. We want to be changed, altered, refined, refashioned. We want what the Buddhists want—we want to be in the presence of someone’s supernatural insight that might lead us to a Noble Truth. And when you have one bad experience like we did with Apple, [possibly more about this in a second draft] you start doubting the powers that be. You start doubting the possibility that you have enough money to buy something like that. That maybe, your needs are too wide and too vast to put a price tag on, and that you’re probably not going to get thrown that glimpse of nirvana.

But it does come. It appears in one-liners that we scrawl like maniacs into our notebooks, that read badly after the fact, because in the moment, in the context, it makes perfect sense. “Monotony can be insightful” (Stephen Dunn); “What could be sadder than a clown without a context” (Stephen Dunn); “The essay is….untrammeled access to a person’s conscience” (David Shields); “An essay is not always an exercise in ego…The self has to jump the tracks out of the self…and become bigger than the self. Complacent, self-assured people don’t make good essayist” (David Shields); “The job of an essayist is to have doubt” (David Shields); “You strike me as someone who has a compost heap” (Alexis Apfelbaum).

In the lobby of the library, when L brought him in she introduced him as David Shields, and I said, not so clumsily, but I could have done better, Yes, yes, I’ve been coming across your work all month: Tin House, Creative Non-Fiction, blah, blah, blah. And of course, I mentioned his name and mine. My name is also Shields, I said, almost with a wink like, you and me, we have a connection (I didn’t say that last bit, I thought it). But he turned, sleepily, possibly still trying to wake up from his nap from 30th Street Station, and said, “That’s not my name.”

Not your name? Forgive me for thinking that. But it’s on all your books.

[Insert here story of my name, then go on to discuss fiction and my relationship to it; ramble on about PBQ and “Reality Fiction” and my nearly 20-year belief that the I—the first person is the vehicle for all stories told. Eventually get back to DS and why Shields isn’t his name].

The story is so much more than this awkward moment of me feeling a little irked that someone would take my name and use it– on his books, no less– when clearly he has his own. He’s damn right to suggest that we are hungry for reality when so much of the world and the people in it are phony. Not to say that he… Well, the story isn’t about the vehicle so much as the message. It tells how I go from incensed to exultant in the span of a couple hours.

And it tells that his class presentation, after all, was replete with all the tingly insights and truths I had hoped for. It tells of the moment when I was changed too; when he addressed the audience during his reading, and quoted Kafka’s belief that fiction “should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us” and then INVALIDATED it by reminding us that there is far too much fiction in the world today and what we desperately seek is REALITY. The story goes on to say how my eyes welled up (that’s what happens when you believe in someone’s argument and have a connection to someone, in spite of their name). And a little moment of Cha-ching pleasantly fell upon me. I got my money’s worth. I had my religious experience. And I decided, then and there, I was switching to non-fiction.

But I’ve run out of time and can’t tell that story right now. I’ll have to log back in to tell it. But Shakespeare was right. “What’s in a name?” I’ll get over David Shields’ appropriation of Shields, but I’ve joined his movement. I’m a fan. Reality Hunger is one of the best books of 2010. I might even be inspired to change my name.

I take back everything I said…

June 23, 2010

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes

This post is “lovely”

June 23, 2010

Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”


In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

On Meeting Pernille

November 7, 2008

So G and I went up to Princeton on Wednesday and met Pernille (see below for more information) and her lovely assistant Gina. My only regret was that I did not take pictures. I could shoot myself for that. But anyway…it was absolutely lovely.

We had lunch at the Alchemist & Barrister, a place G plays at every Wednesday night. The four of us talked and talked and talked and by one in the afternoon, we were sitting on the lawn of Princeton University, hooked up with mics, telling the camera of our old romance and what it has been like for me to be a love addict. Possibly the nicest thing that came out of it all (as there’s no guarantee that we will be chosen to continue in her project) was the tenderness that G exposed for me in front of strangers and the camera. At one point I began to cry and he hugged me, and said, it’s OK, T. There I was, vulnerable, revealing horribly embarrassing secrets about myself in front of him and he accepted it all. It has pretty much always been that way between us, and yet…we have never been able to overcome our difference. Those four pesky issues of his that I cannot seem to accept in my life. Nor probably ever will.

Anyway, I believe Pernille and Gina were pleased with what they caught on tape. At one point, tears filled Pernille’s eyes as I talked about what love addiction “feels like.” I likened it to that old video we all saw back in high school psychology class…the experiment with the three monkeys. One was raised by his mum, another by a surrogate clorox bottle covered in fur that rocked, and a third was raised his whole life with only a plastic clorox bottle, food and water. Isolated since birth, he did not even a blanket for warmth. The poor little thing sat in its cage and rocked back and forth, holding onto itself, whimpering and eventually died very early. I said, that’s what it feels like.

She asked us questions like “how did you two meet?” “why did you break up?” “why do you think you were addicted to each other?” and so on. They laughed at the way we still share food. The way we touch each other. How we smiled and laughed while we were together. They wanted to know the exact time-line of our affair.

Well, we dated three years. Sort of. There was MB in there for awhile and then, of course, S. Not to mention Carmela, the fifty-something-year-old, married waitress from the diner who’s madly in love with G. A lot of players circling around us. But most peculiar is that G and I are NOT dating, nor have we dated since January, 2007. So as far as time-lines go, it’s not a straight line like time to a Westerner. It’s more circular, like Dakota time or Cherokee time.

“We never fight,” G said. “We love each other but just cannot seem to get past certain things.” That’s easy for him to say.

He’s talking about vices. His vices, and how I can’t accept the lovely miss Mary Jane in my life. And there are other barriers as well. Things I won’t go into here. Things that I finally realized made for a bad partnership.

When you have things such as strong communication, healthy emotion, music, a shared love of many things, humor and mutual love and respect, it makes it really hard to walk away. But there’s a balancing act that “normal” people seem to do. They take all those good things and say, “that’s great, but I can’t put up with the bad stuff.” Normal people look at the whole picture. A love addict can’t do that. She sees only what she wants to see. She overlooks the bad and then regrets it and 2 years down the road she says, “what the hell am I doing? I’ve been starving myself and for what?”

A love addict takes that man and does not accept him as just a man. She turns him into Christ. God. Her Savior. And then when he abandons her, she repeats over and over, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

She takes on his identity and then wonders what to do when he is not in her presence, a la Scarlet O’Hara, “Oh Rhett! What’ll I do? Where’ll I go?”

Worst of all, she forgets who she is. Submersed in the very heart of that man, she loses her values, her opinions, her boundaries, her likes and dislikes. She loses her soul.

And then when she wakes up one day and says I gotta get the hell out of here, she realizes she’s got no where to go. So she stays.  The man is not a man anymore. The man is a “hit,” of her drug. He is her defense mechanism. Her way out of her ugly life. The man is not a man anymore. He is a tool used to suppress pain and to avoid reality at all cost. And thus, he begins to define her addiction.

The last question Pernille, or rather, Gina posed was, “how did you get over this addiction? What inside you changed to make you see the light, so to speak?”

Oh yes. Hallelujah. The light. The conclusion. Well, I am not addicted to G anymore. Nor anyone else for that matter. But God never came down and parted the seas and said to me, T, it’s time to change…and I never saw this bright shining light nor had my moment of spiritual surrender. My path was a little less dramatic than that, and a little more boring. It was a long road. G helped me get through a lot by remaining my friend. My ex S helped me get through a lot. But mostly, I came to terms with being alone, slowly. Day by day.

When S and i split, I literally locked myself in my room and cried for 5 days. I did not eat. I did not move. I did nothing. I raised the dead (in me, that is). I made peace with the emptiness. I said over and over again, it’s high time that this moment has come. It’s here now. You’ve been waiting for it. Seize it. And I did. I did so by doing nothing. And I got used to it. And though I entered into that state confused and scared and fearful of being alone, I came out the other end OK. And that was that. My moment. You see, that’s what it’s all about for a love addict or an alcoholic or drug addict or anyone else for that matter with serious defense mechanisms. We try to avoid the emptiness at all costs. We’ll do anything to avoid the pain of reality. And eventually, it catches up with you and says, “it’s time.”

But the hard work had begun years ago when I first met G, and it continues today. I came to terms with my own personal values and I began to find my own identity for the first time. I made boundaries and I upheld them. I demanded better things for myself. I sought out people who tended to share more of my values. Mostly, I realized my worth. Plain and simple. And the only way to do that was and still is in solitude. It is in the solitude that you have your own thoughts, uncluttered. You have no where to turn but inward. You can finally see your identity clearly.

Alice Walker in the The Color Purple has this great line: “you gotta git man off your eyeball before you can see anything at all.” And the only way to do that is find god. Find you. Make peace with the nothingness.

We left by 2:30 and hugged and they were off to NYC and then LA. Traveling across the country to meet possibly hundreds of others with similar issues as me. Their project is vast and I may never see or hear from them again, and yet…they truly touched my life. Pernille’s project is my project. My life. It represents the struggle I have undergone as an artist to accomplish something for myself. And seeing her joy and hard work, it has inspired me to continue with my own projects and my own writing.

I hope to keep posting on this topic. And to keep doors open…

About Pernille:

Acclaimed director Pernille Rose Grønkjær (born in 1973) has been working with documentary films for the past 10 years. Her latest feature documentary “The Monastery – Mr. Vig and the Nun” had its US premiere at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival 2007. Since then the film has travelled to about 60 festivals the world over. It has won 14 awards from Sydney to Moscow, including the prestigious Joris Ivens Award in Amsterdam, and recently The Cinema Eye Award in New York. The film was also nominated for best documentary at The Spirit Awards in Los Angeles, California 2008.
The Monastery, by  Pernille Rose Grønkjær