theicingonthecrazycake

When life hands you lemons, toss them in the trash and eat cake

Archive for the category “The Writing Life”

Counting

We count. We are human and we can’t help ourselves.

We count calories. We count pounds gained and lost. We count our ages and birthdays past and future, freckles and wrinkles and sprouting gray hairs. We count the growing acreage of cellulite on our asses and thighs.

We count the hours we’ve slept, or not slept. We count out pills and vitamins each morning, we count the hours until daylight or dusk. We count out change to the cashier. We count out strangers based on first impressions, because their looks, education, speech and/or color don’t match our expectations.

We, needy humans that we are, tend to count on each other more than we count on ourselves. We can count on sometimes having only ourselves on whom to rely. We can count on feeling alone. We can count on the fact that no one person can fill every void in our souls and psyches.

We count transgressions against us, but sometimes, we don’t count the number of grudges we hold. We count the number of dollars in our bank accounts, and sometimes – well, oftentimes — we unfairly compare ourselves to people with higher pay and bigger houses. Which, count on it, only makes us feel like shit.

We count through the seasons, the days until Thanksgiving or Christmas or that three-day weekend. We count the number of vacation days we have, but we rarely count the number of vacation days we’ve already used and what we did, because we are too preoccupied with counting off the days until the next one.

We count our inadequacies, but do we use the same arithmetic to count our talents and good deeds? We count out people who, in our eyes have fucked up or screwed us over, but do we count the number of those people who eventually rise from the ashes?

We count the ex-lovers, the mistakes and the losses, the number of friends and lovers we’ve left behind (or left us behind) and the enemies we’ve gained. We count the days since the expiration date on those relationships, and count the days until we’re “supposed” to feel better about it all. But how often do we count the friends we do have, the lovers who have taught us so much? The love we gain and give back to the universe? The blessings bestowed upon us?

Counting will make you miserable. You see, we don’t count the days until our death, the number of breaths we have left, because we can’t. If we’re too busy counting anything and everything – counting the roses instead of stopping to smell them – it’s literally impossible to live in the simple arithmetic of now.

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Welcome mats and doormats

Yesterday I approached my Meals on Wheels route with a heavy heart. I can’t explain it. I think it was because that damn Bon Iver song “Skinny Love” was playing on the radio as I pulled out of the food distribution center. That song makes me sad. I fumbled with the dial, trying to find Bananarama or something else stupid and peppy and retro. Nope, Bauhaus was playing for fuck’s sake. Radio. Turned. Off.

I ruminated about my mood as I drove to my first meal drop-off. I decided it was because I felt like an empty vessel – and today of all days I needed to be shooting compassionate and patient pixie dust out of my ass. These people relied on me. Yet, I had nothing to give. As my wise friend Karen says to me when I’m facing a difficult task or visit home: “Just send your better self. Just for this one thing. It will get you through it.” So I tried to summon my better self, but I wasn’t sure if she was the one driving the car at the moment.

My first drop-off  was easy – I just had to put the food in the cooler, as was the case with the following two deliveries. No human interaction required, yet I still cried in my car between these easy drop-offs. Better self, where are you? I asked myself.

Next on the list: Ed. Sometimes he waited outside for his food, sunning himself on the back deck; other days he left a cooler for me. With twinkly blue eyes and ruddy Irish skin, he reminds me of my grandfather, had my grandfather lived to see his late 70s, instead of only his early 60s.

I pulled up to his house and headed to the back of the house. The cooler was there on the back deck, in place of Ed. Alas, there was no ice, and I’m not allowed to leave the food in the cooler unless it contains an ice-pack.

I knocked.

“Who is it?” said a gruff voice.

“It’s Meals on Wheels,” my better self cheerfully shouted through the closed door.

“What a glorious voice,” he said as he opened the back door.

I handed him his his meal and asked, “How are you doing today, Ed?”

“Tired. I just woke up. But my day just got better the minute I saw you. You look like a damn movie star. A movie star! It should be a crime to be as pretty as you are.”

Taken off guard, I squeaked, “You know, Ed, I was having a difficult morning, and you just made my day.” Putting my hand on my chest I said with less-squeaky conviction, “I will carry your compliment in my heart all day long. Thank you. You have a great day yourself.”

I practically skipped back to my car, with tears in my eyes but a big grin on my face. Yeah, yeah, Ed is practically blind, which probably makes my bovine-sized thighs look super-model svelte, but perhaps he can sense inner beauty. Or maybe I am pretty. Huh. Foreign concept for me.

After a few more easy stops, I reached Meg’s house. She always tries to give me something: brownies, eggplant, earrings, necklaces, a wooden angel. She won’t take no for an answer. We chatted for awhile and then she showed me her garden, as if for the first time, even through she shows it to me every time I visit her. I don’t mind. I like gardens. Besides, it’s a testament to her strength: 88 years old with a bad leg, she spends hours out in her garden, tending to the tomatoes and zucchini and beans.

“I have something for you,” she said, grabbing my hand and leading me out to the garage.

“Meg, I can’t possibly take anything else from you, you have been more than generous,” I argued.

She opened the garage and presented me with an empty Kmart shopping cart.

“I grabbed this when the store down the street closed. I’ve got no use for it, in fact I have an identical one in the basement.”

I stifled a laugh. A shopping cart? Too bad she didn’t have a job or boyfriend waiting for me in the garage.

“Meg, you are so sweet. I can’t possibly take this. I live on the third floor, in a 500 square foot apartment.”

She signed resignedly and said okay. I hugged her and walked down the driveway giggling to myself. “See you next week,” I shouted over my shoulder.

As the morning rolled by, I visited with two other of my favorites, and managed to coax another one of the clients outside her door. She usually leaves the door open just wide enough for me to slip the food through. Victory.

My better self finally emerged, due in no small part to the welcome mat that always seems to be put out for me. Whether I visit with these people or am left with a cooler (but no person) to deliver to, I feel welcome, needed, maybe even loved.

However, my day wasn’t over yet. On an afternoon walk with my dog, I would find out that the welcome mat doesn’t exist in some people’s lives; instead they seek to treat others like doormats. These days, I prefer actively stepping over the threshold of the welcome mat, not being the passive doormat. And the Cruella De Vil who tangled with me yesterday afternoon was met with my better, non-doormat self’s smart mouth and a sense of new-found confidence.

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Moonrise Kingdom and writing clogs

I haven’t written all week: No blog, no fiction, not even a grocery list. It was not the best week, especially down in the trenches of the soon-to-be-unemployed. I had a couple of hand grenades launched my way, including a brief and polite rejection letter from Brown, where I had applied for a Marketing Manager position in their Continuing Education department. I networked my ass off for that job, and still, it got me nowhere.

This week, instead of full-steam-ahead productivity, I wallowed. I danced under the disco ball at my very own (and sparsely attended) pity party. I read. I slept. I didn’t clean my kitchen. The cat is peeved about the overall state of his litter box. I guess I got a little depressed. I did, on a good note, see my doctor (and find out my cholesterol numbers rival those of a Powerball jackpot, and thus, I will be visiting a nutritionist tomorrow). I did Pilates. I did Meals on Wheels, delivering 19 meals all by myself to a bunch of people who were happy to see me. So there was good among the bad, and I have to accept that this is LIFE. Up and down and all around. Keep plugging along.

But the writing still wouldn’t come. I couldn’t even lift my fingers to the keyboard, I couldn’t grasp a pen or even look at a blank piece of paper. Until Friday afternoon, when I played hooky and went to the movies.

Thank you Wes Anderson for pulling me out of my cloggy funk. Thank you for making Moonrise Kingdom. It is brilliant. It is funny. It is heartfelt, bittersweet, life-affirming. It reminds me of an innocent, simpler time and the endless world that seems to spread out ahead of us in our youth, where we can do anything, be anything, unencumbered by the nagging self-doubt, anxiety and baggage that plagues us in adulthood and tends to hold us back.

It also reminded me of a writing prompt from my fiction workshop: Start off with the words “I remember” and go from there. I’ve already done this prompt, but Moonrise Kingdom inspired me to do again, this time focusing on my childhood and adolescence. My reasons are selfish, I suppose. I want to find that innocence. I want to go back and remember the good and the bad. But most of all, I want to figure out when the break happened. When did I cross over the bridge, from guileless childhood to the sometimes cruel/sometimes beautiful reality of the adult world? Or did I ever have a naive, innocent time during my youth? I don’t know if there was ever a bridge to cross.

I Remember

I remember sledding down a hill in Durham, laughing so hard that my smile seemed to split open my face while my cheeks turned crimson in the cold. I remember the move from North Carolina to Florida; I rode with my dad in his beat-up neon-green VW Rabbit, while my mother and brother followed behind us in a rust-colored Monte Carlo. I remember my dad flicking cigarette after cigarette butt out of the window, chain-smoking his way through four states, from mountains to swamps, smoking to the soundtrack of the kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk of the tires hitting the highway seams. I remember the unrelenting damp heat of Florida, juxtaposed to the drier mountain-and-ocean-buffered Carolina heat, It hit me like an unexpected slap, leaving hand-prints on my soul and scrambling my brains like eggs on a searing sidewalk.

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50 shades of shameful, mindless escapism

There was an interesting editorial in The New York Times‘ regular Room for Debate feature last week. In particular, I was drawn to YA author Matt de la Pena’s part of the debate, where he quoted author Franz Kafka’s assertion that a book should wake us up with a blow to the head. He concluded that folks – due in no small part to their gerbil-sized technology-addicted attention spans – are mostly reading crappy, non-literary fiction in lieu of books that force them to think about and face their inner melancholy. And why? Because readers prefer a mindless escape, and ultimately, a way to reach a deeper sleep. No blow to the head needed, thankyouverymuch.

I doubt Kafka has read – unless he’s been reincarnated as a middle-age New Jersey housewife – the bestselling, taking-the-world-by-storm-oh-my-god-they’re-going-to-turn-it-into-a-movie Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. I do, however, wonder what part of his body would be struck should he miraculously be able to read it. His head? Maybe not.

Anyway, Pena’s editorial was timely, as I had just put down the first installment of the trilogy – 200 smutty pages into it – to let my English major, William Faulkner and Edith Wharton-loving mind breathe for a moment and read something smart, like the paper version of the Times…my Sunday guilty pleasure.

Little did my innocent mind (almost as innocent as the 22-year-old narrator Anastasia Steele’s virginal world-view before meeting Christian Grey – sadist extraordinaire, billionaire mogul at the age of 28, and apparently the most gorgeous man in the world) know at the time is that it would get shamefully sucked into the 50 Shades trilogy, much like Anastasia gets sucked into Christian’s orgasmic world of exotic sports cars, helicopters and spankings. This series became my guilty pleasure for six painfully insufferable yet pleasurable days. I stand here (relieved? embarrassed? assessing my woefully inadequate sex life and bank account?) done with all 1,500 delicious, horribly written pages, replete (yes, that word is used like 6,000 times in the last installment of the trilogy) with insipid dialogue and a wildly implausible plot line. Yes, Kafka, this trilogy lodged a much-needed escapist blow to my head (and perhaps libido) – a blow that I must confess left me awake and alive, yet stupid (I feel like I just smoked 42 joints back to back to back and had part of my frontal lobe removed).

Speaking of libido, I can’t not talk about The Sex – which sometimes is “vanilla” (Christian Grey’s word, not mine), while other times borders on law-breaking S&M fantasies played out in the “Red Room of Pain” – that has every Christian group and stodgy librarian’s puritan panties in a wad. (And let’s NOT get started on the feminist outrage over this book; it takes two to tango – Anastasia knew what she was getting herself into.)

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The Job Interview – Parts 2 and 3

Continued from Part 1.

***

Part 2

A balding man in a rumpled gray suit shows me into a large conference room. He has bags under his glassy, empty eyes, which are framed by a mono-brow. He seems ambivalent, bored, robotic.

He leans in close – too close for my one-foot personal boundary rule and not far enough way for me to avoid a whiff of halitosis – and says “I’m the HR Manager, Dick Dickensheets.”

Think bad horrible ugly catastrophic thoughts, like exploding nuclear bombs and dead kittens, I think to myself. Do not laugh. Do NOT laugh.

“We’ll get started just as soon as Sage Green, our Marketing Director, arrives. In the meantime, would you like something to drink?”

Shit. Dead kittens, dead kittens, dead kittens. No, not helping. Men who wear capri pants, men who wear capri pants, men who wear capri pants. Okay, I can breathe now.

I think about asking for vodka on the rocks, but ask opt for water instead. I want him to get out of the room quickly so I can release a roar of pent-up laughter.

He exits the room, leaving a lingering trail of bad breath, and after a 30-second fit of giggles, I sit at the conference room table, tapping my fingers against the glass top and anxiously wondering whether my face is visibly blue based on my Spanx-induced oxygen deprivation.

Two minutes later, Dick arrives with Sage. Alarm bells go off – “runrunrunaway” they shrilly chime in unison. At first glance, I realize that Sage could be a man or woman or in the middle of a sex-reassignment surgery; a foreboding sense of dread about this interview starts to wash over my body.

It is wearing a tight-fitting pantsuit and a skinny tie – both in tropical fruit colors – with a crisp white shirt to pull it all together. Its hair is short, but not too short, fashionably slicked back, as shiny as a freshly waxed beamer and framing a semi-feminine face. Waxed eyebrows? Maybe – could go either way (they do provide a stark contrast to Mr. Dickensheets unpruned mono-brow). There is no visible 5’oclock shadow, although a curious bit of fuzz adorning its upper lip looks like a burgeoning caterpillar. Oxfords with laces and a slight heel. No make-up, wait is that eyelin…

“Hi Beatrice,” it says, interrupting my thoughts. It shakes my hand and says “Great to meet you,” sounding like Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner after smoking a carton of cigarettes.

“Good morning, Misterissus Green,” I slur, hoping he is too distracted by my muffin top to notice my poor enunciation. “You can call me Bea.”

“Well Bea, let’s get started, shall we?” Sage says in its raspy voice.

***

Part 3

The jump from the third-floor bathroom window has left my knees bruised and my panty-hose in shreds, but otherwise my body seems to be in working order. I glance up at the mangled, dangling window screen and then look over at the crushed shrubbery I had landed in, realizing – as I survey the large, packed parking lot – that I don’t remember where I parked my car.

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The Job Interview – Part 1

After months of unemployment, isolated from all the living except for a cat, dog, goldfish and orchid, I had taken to wearing sweatpants every day and eating copious amounts of Cheetos. So while it was surprising when I finally got a job interview, it was not surprising that none of my business-appropriate attire fit. Well, my clothes “fit” – after squeezing into three pairs of Spanx and deciding that muffin top was not only acceptable, it was the new sexy.

On the humid, rainy morning of the interview it takes me 27 minutes and 32 seconds to dress myself in 14 layers of spandex and an interview suit. I check my hair and make-up in the hall mirror (hair looks like an already-bad 80’s perm gone horribly awry and makeup is melting), pop half a benzo and head out to my soon-to-be-repossessed car

Driving the 20 miles to the interview, my mind is humming while my makeup continues to slide off my face and onto my neck. This company manufactures the rubber stoppers that are put on chair legs to prevent floor damage. I will be interviewing for the Senior Copywriter position; if selected, I would oversee production of the quarterly rubber-chair-stopper (RCS) catalog, including writing all the copy. Did you know that RCSs come in 325 different colors, and 75 different sizes? And more recently, they had become available in eco-friendly, sustainable materials, like recycled plastic, bamboo, cork, soybeans and bio-combustible cornstarch? (Don’t ask, I don’t know what the hell the cornstarch stuff is either, which given Murphy’s stupid Law, I will be asked about in the interview.) Six materials X 325 colors X 75 different sizes = a lot of scintillating copy to write.

I had applied for this job in a fit of Resume Drunk Dialing.

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The Bulgarian Princess – Part 3

This is the third and final installment of this story. Read Parts 1 and 2 if you haven’t done so already and want this to make sense. Or maybe you don’t want to read those parts, and that’s fine. OR, maybe you want to read them out-of-order, which is also great. Enjoy!

***

After more than eight years of marriage, I thought we, including my brother, would have grown to like her. Wishful thinking is a dangerous thing, kind of like chain-smoking Marlboro Reds for 40 years and expecting that the CT scan will reveal the unsullied lungs of a newborn. Their marriage was a mess due to my brother’s recent job loss, a house in foreclosure, and her refusal to seek legitimate employment in lieu of her current money-making hobbies: performing body painting at nudist resorts, chauffeuring my seven-year-old niece to local beauty pageants, and black market trafficking Levis jeans in Eastern Europe. The Bank of My Dad kept them out of a cardboard box and her in designer duds and platinum-blonde hair extensions.

As Fall fell upon us that year, I started to dread the looming holidays. I concluded that I would rather shove a meat thermometer into my eyeball than spend another family gathering drowning in the palpable tension created by two married people who hate each other. (No, I’m not talking about my parents, they might actually like each other, on most days.)

On Turkey Day, they arrived at my parents’ house, the location of the Dad ATM machine. This year, the machine screen displayed “Out of Order.” Perhaps my dad’s spine reappeared because the turkey still had 30 minutes to go and he was two-thirds of the way through a bottle of Bordeaux – or maybe he valued his retirement savings far more than her pedicures and Coach bags.

News of the ATM malfunction did not go over well. Panicked and shocked, they locked themselves in one of the spare bedrooms.

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The Bulgarian Princess – Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

After the fake-marriage divorce was final six months later, my brother proposed. My father’s only comment was “Your brother in store for a lifetime of misery.” That would make a great greeting card, I thought. I must remember to pitch this to the Hallmark people. She asked my dad for $5,000 as an engagement gift. As we would find out during the next several years, gifts for anniversaries, birthdays, Christian and Jewish holidays, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Mother’s Day, and even Arbor Day, involved cash, flashy jewelry or designer handbags per Bulgarian customs dating back thousands of years. Does she think we’re that stupid? said my dad, as he sat hunched over his desk writing another check.

On their wedding day, my mother fainted when the Bulgarian Princess marched down the aisle in a corseted dress with a skirt (and price tag) larger than the Louisiana Purchase. My mom came to with the aid of smelling salts just as my older sister showed up halfway through the homily, teetering down the aisle in stilettos, which hit the marble tiles with a clack clack clack that echoed as far back as the vestibule. She plopped herself down beside me in the pew and whispered, “I guess I got the time wrong,” her breath reeking of bourbon.

As far as we could tell, the Princess had not worked since she arrived in the states; she had met my brother while loitering outside the pharmaceutical lab where he worked. She was attracted to men in white coats like a lion to an innocent, unsuspecting gazelle that had stopped to take a sip from the watering hole. She once told me, “I am not a alone job girl like you, or how you say, career? My most greatest dream is to be mudder and marry American, how do you say, doocter?” Mudder I soon figured out was not a quaint term for a horse-stall mucker or archeologist; she became pregnant two months after the wedding and six days after my brother started medical school. Mudderhood was on the horizon, whether any of us liked it or not.

To be continued…

The Bulgarian Princess – Part 1

She charged into our family like a rhino that had broken free from the Barnum and Bailey tent. Problem was, most rhinos on the lam eventually moved to other places, like a nice city park or retention pond. She stayed.

Prior to moving to the States seven years ago, she married an American in order to secure a work Visa or something like that. (Early on, I didn’t pay close attention to the details; I just assumed she would be making a quick drive through the dysfunctional, one-stoplight town called My Family.) She and the American were “fake married” and would soon be divorced, which she proudly shared with us during her first visit to our house; this admission made my mother’s left eye twitch uncontrollably and her arm hair visibly stand up. It was spooky. Not the fake marriage thing, but the hair thing. Anyway, I finally figured out that “Give me money,” “I am much prettier than your ugly sisters,” and “Marry me or I’ll poke holes in your condoms and go off the pill” were the few American phrases she could say with ease, so practiced they flew off her serpentine tongue with the agility of an Olympic gymnast dismounting from the uneven bars. She didn’t, however, have a proper understanding of the English language when someone asked “Have you found a job yet” or “Stop asking my dad for money.”

My brother and the Bulgarian Princess were an item, my old-fashioned dad said with a sad shake of his head. To me, items were groceries that passed by on their conveyer-belt journey to the cashier’s scanner, a I-will-die-if-I-they-don’t-have-these-in-my-size pair of leather motorcycle boots, a mid-century modern armchair upholstered in chocolate brown, a piece of red velvet cake. Two people who made out at the dining room table and blurted out not-so-discreet comments about their sex life during dinner were not items. They were an embarrassment, a fleeting one, I hoped.

Three weeks into their relationship, my brother called me. He never calls me.

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Writing classes and swamps

First off, for anyone who has taken a writing workshop or wants to take a writing workshop or is a writer or just wants to laugh, may I suggest Jincy Willet’s novel The Writing Class? I peed my panties within the first 10 pages. Hilarious, and a great mood lifter for my depressed inner artist.

I finished my literal writing class this week and I’m sad to see it end. What a zany group of people whose superlative writing skills humbled me. We spent the last class eating enough sugary treats to send a herd of six-year-olds into tasmanian-devil-like hyperactivity, and took breaks between the gorging to do yoga poses. There wasn’t a lot of talk about writing, it was just a party of sorts. A way to say good-bye to each other, after baring our writing souls to one another for three months.

Our little gaggle of writers was like The Breakfast Club. But instead of jocks, princesses, brains, basket-cases (besides me) and criminals, we had the the hilariously sarcastic I’ll-give-David-Sedaris-a-run-for-his-money-one-day writers (for an example, PLEASE read this gem written by one of my classmates); the serious, pensive writers who wrote gorgeous dialogue or mind-blowing descriptions (or both, which made me insanely jealous); poet-like novelists whose work demanded to be read aloud and those writers who took the stereotypical narrative and threw it upside down on its head; writers of layered prose chock full of similes and metaphors, and the minimalist writers whose economy of words made my jaw drop in awe. And our instructor — a young, recent MFA graduate — created such a relaxed, loose, raise-your-freak-flag-and-you-won’t-be-judged environment. I owe him a lot for getting me to write again and encouraging me, even though some weeks I brought some truly shitty stuff to class. Thank you, Mark.

I have to admit, though, I feel raw post-class for a couple of reasons. I can sit here and write about mental illness and breakups and vaginas without a second thought — safe within a somewhat anonymous blog persona. But…when forced to read my fiction face-to-face in front of a group of artists who are going to offer feedback, I am terrified. Well, rather, was terrified. The band-aid has been ripped off, however, not without some pain.

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