Friday, January 12, 2018

What Would Wendy Do?


I wrote this a couple of years ago but never shared it.  Seemed fitting today so share this on what would have been Wendy's 40th birthday.

For most of my life, I lived in a box.  No, not a real box.  I didn’t grow up on the street surrounded by cardboard and I wasn’t a member of a small family of mice or anything, though that would be an interesting story.  I had made my own box, carefully stacked around me in rows, built up, year after year into a solid shape that hovered around me like an aura.  Sharp corners, crisp lines and endless strings of words that I had applied to myself and they included a lot of shoulds and musts and don’t’s and can’ts.  There isn’t an anonymous organization for this, but maybe I’m starting one right now.  My name is Karen and I’m a rule-follower.

What rules?  Oh, the ones I applied to myself.  I never had a curfew in high school, mostly because my parents knew I would never sneak out, never drink and never lie about where I had been.  And it wasn’t the parenting, though we had excellent parenting, because my sister did ALL of those things.  I was just, as they say, a goody two-shoes.  It carried over into college.  Homework always in on time, so on time, that I graduated a year early.  Stayed away from the pot smokers, not an easy feat in Los Angeles and didn’t drink, outside of one trip to Europe, where it was legal, until my 21st birthday.  There has never in my life, been a little something called a one night stand.

I never looked the part of the goody two-shoes.  My sister, Wendy, once wrote about me, in some personal essay writing she penned back in 1998 or 99.  She never showed it to me herself, but I found the neatly typed pages years ago.  A little bit of it goes like this.

"Karen is a nice, pretty girl...Sometimes I watch her when we’re at a bar together, and I just laugh inside my head.  She becomes this completely different person than the one I argue with about morality.  Like the way she dances…She can slide her hips to the beat of any song with ease and grace, but at the same time with the kind of raw sexuality rarely seen outside of the highest class strip clubs.  She looks like a girl raring to go, one who’s been around the block quite a few times.  But she is neither of these…Karen doesn’t put out.  My sister is not sexy.  She’s beautiful, but she is not sexy.  She is extremely intelligent, but she is not hip…It’s like she’s a really hot dork trying to be cool.”

In my early college and post grad years, I remember starting to see friends or other students sporting bracelets, usually those woven ones, with the letters WWJD on them. It stood for What Would Jesus Do?  According to Wikipedia, Christians “…used the phrase as a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through the actions of the adherents.”  The bracelets were supposed to help you remember to be a better person, to make wise choices.  Though I suspect some parents “gifted” them to their teens and young adults in a desperate attempt to keep them from drinking, smoking pot and having sex.  Guilt is a powerful motivator.

It's often been guilt, or maybe a combination of guilt and fear, that’s kept me toe-ing the line for so many years.  But I didn’t need a personal relationship with Jesus or a bracelet around my wrist with a jumble of letters to tell me what NOT to do.  It was really the other way around.


During a Southern California fall, on a chilly night just before Halloween, my younger sister, the one who wrote so eloquently about my finer traits, was killed during a random robbery in her car, on a quiet block in Hollywood.  But that is another story.

Wendy was the opposite of me.  If there was a rule to be found, she was going to do her best to break it.  Not because she was contrary by nature.  On the contrary.  She was warm and engaging and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t get along with her.  Her world just simply didn’t have walls.  There are a million stories I could relate that would illustrate this statement, but for now, I’ve chosen just one.  

It was in 1999.  I was in grad school and Wendy was an undergrad student at Occidental College.  We lived together, in a little 1950’s house in the San Fernando Valley.  It was late afternoon on a Sunday and Wendy was still in her bathrobe.  Mostly naked was her general preference for attire.  My dog was curled up on Wendy’s lap, her tiny nose tucked into the folds of the dark green terry cloth monstrosity that was probably in desperate need of a wash.  The start of the Golden Globe awards was on TV.

“I’m headed to school,” I said.  I had a project due and a team meeting scheduled.  “I’ll be back later.”
“Okay,” she said.  “I might go to the Golden Globes.”  There was no sarcasm in her voice.

“Right.  Let me know how that goes.”  There was a lot of sarcasm in my voice.


I came home about four hours later to an empty house.  Then I got a text from Wendy, T9 style, on my snazzy brick of a phone.  She did it.  Wendy pulled an old formal dress from a school dance out of her closet, fluffed up her hair and drove to Hollywood.  Later, when she came home, she would tell me that she “walked right in.”  The ceremony was more than half over, and she just looked like she knew what she was doing.  She would later produce photos with a handful of television celebrities and in most of them, she’s got this crazy face on and is gesturing at them with a “look who I’m with” expression.

After Wendy died, I was shattered.  To be honest, I still pick up pieces of myself every now and then and try to stick them back on.  I came apart, and as I put myself back together, over days, and weeks and years, the pieces fit differently.  My rules hadn’t stopped Wendy from dying, they didn’t stop me from grieving, and the box they had built had failed to keep me safe.  Yet, I still clung to them, as if they gave me structure, helped to keep the pieces together.  I still do, a lot of the time.  As they say in recovery, once a rule-follower, always a rule-follower, right?  

But somewhere along the way, maybe four or five years after Wendy died, when I was most struggling with how to keep her in my life as the years fell away, I thought of those What Would Jesus Do? bracelets.  I suddenly realized I needed one.  But mine would read, WWWD.  What Would Wendy Do?  When choices in life would come up, some little and some big, I started to ask myself that question.  There was something immediately reassuring when I discovered that I always knew the answer.  It connected me to her in a way I hadn’t expected and connected me to life in a way I had never experienced.  

If my gut reaction to Wendy’s answer was “Oh, hell, no,” then I stuck to my guns.  But if I thought to myself, “that sounds a little crazy,” or “maybe I shouldn’t,” or “I’d love to, but I’m afraid,” I’d look down at my invisible macramé bracelet and say, “Okay, Wendy, you win, I’m doing it your way.”

What Would Wendy do got me on a plane by myself for a solo vacation to London in 2007, which to this day, was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.  It got me to open a business in an industry I knew little about.  It got me to give in on days I needed to get stuff done, and to stay in my bathrobe until dinner time.  It got me to stand up for myself in moments when it’s far more comfortable for me to keep quiet.  What Would Wendy Do? also left me once stranded at a house in the Hollywood Hills trapped in a bathroom with a bunch of cocaine-sniffing actors until 4 in the morning in days before Google Maps and iPhones so I couldn’t call a cab because I couldn’t tell them how to find me.  So use with caution.

I issue you that warning because I’d like to pass a little of Wendy’s “get out of your box, whatever it happens to be made out of”, brand of magic.  Think of the word Wendy as a symbol, because it’s not really about Wendy.  This is about me, about you, about all of us.  It’s about getting comfortable with the things that make you feel like you’re wearing a too tight pair of shoes.  It’s not about breaking all of the rules, because there’s an “oh, hell, no” in all of us and it’s there for a reason.  But there’s also a “maybe,” and a “why not,” and all kinds of other wonderful words that make pathways instead of boxes.

So maybe I don’t need an anonymous self-help group.  Maybe all any of us really needs is a circle around our wrist.  Tattooed, imaginary, from the dime store, or even from Tiffany’s.  Especially from Tiffany’s.  A daily reminder that some rules are meant to be broken, that some boxes are meant to be opened.  That an experience, good or bad, is just that, a wonderful, magical experience.  And that life, for as long as we have it, is meant to be lived. 



Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Begin at the End

On Sunday night I was sitting in the lobby bar at a Las Vegas hotel, catching up with an old friend I hadn't seen in we couldn't figure out how long, but at least 7 or so years.  Some people go to Vegas to gamble, I go to Vegas to see old friends, because that's where a surprising number of them live.  Towards the end of our conversation he said something I can't remember exactly, I was two merlots deep at that point, but the gist of it was that you should always live the life you want to be in, not the one you imagine, or hope to arrive at somewhere a little further down the line.  The specifics had to do with whether or not to get a new car, in light of other uncertainties in life, which sounds really banal.  But over the last couple days since I've been back home, it's been sitting in the back of my head.  Today it started percolating and a conversation from lunch yesterday brought me back to this blog, to a realization that it has been two years since I've put in an entry.  Which is even more telling.  So I find myself back here, at the end of the month, on the cusp of the ending month of the year. 

Less than two months ago I was invited into a large conference room and told my job was ending.  All of our jobs were ending - an entire office closing down.  For the decision-makers, it was I imagine, a drawn out, contemplative process, but for us, the ones in the trenches, it happened in an instant.  One day we had jobs, an office, a goal, heck it was sales, lots of goals.  And then we just didn't.  Some of us are trickling out, one by one until the end of the year, but for others, it was over in the course of a day.  I'm angry, sad and whatever the rest of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' cycle of grief and loss includes (maybe not the denial - it's hard to deny a half empty office).  But here's the thing.  I'm not that sad.  I'm still that angry.  I have no idea what happens next, which scares the stuffing out of me, but I know one thing.  I was definitely not living the life I wanted to be in, and it sure as hell wasn't the one I imagined.  It was a world where I didn't write, because I was too tired to find words, too terrified to confront a blank page.  Confidence in my ability to create falling to the wayside, so much that this feels rusty, awkward.  But that's okay, it's a start.

Less than two weeks ago, something far worse than losing a job I no longer wanted happened.  I opened up Facebook to find that the life of an old and very dear friend had ended.  It happened too suddenly, too soon.  I read and re-read the last text he sent to me just the week before, expressing love and friendship, sadness and hope.  It took a few days for it to edge past the all too familiar shock, the numbness.  And then, with those stages.  Suddenly coming all at once.  Sitting in the middle of a Dallas Mavericks game two days after Brandy died, I burst into tears, which was only not that weird because our team was being slaughtered by the Clippers so one could take me for a really emotional fan.  But I was crying because Brandy loved basketball.  Sports in general really, but basketball, football and surfing the most.  Since we first met in college he always tried to incite sports rivalries with me.  He was a devoted 49ers fan, trying for years to rile me up when they beat the Cowboys.  I could give a shit about football, especially given the quality of my hometown team for most of the 22 years I've known Brandy, so it didn't work, but it never stopped him from trying.

It was theater though, that brought us together.  A common major, we met over the headsets during a UCLA production where he was the stage manager, and as a lighting class requirement, I was doing my best impression of a light board operator.  Sparks flew to the point that we were told to stop hitting on each other over the airwaves, where the rest of the set techs and stage hands could hear everything.  It kindled to a brief romance and then quickly settled into a deep and lengthy friendship that would stick over the next twenty some-odd years, despite often living in different cities and then time zones.  He called me once, in senior year, at around three in the morning. 

"Are you awake?"
"Yes, of course."  I always lie when people wake me up in the middle of the night.  I'm far too polite.  But call me in the middle of the night and I will do it to you too.

That was when we had a long discussion about how we should be friends.  I remember it now, though until just a day or two ago, I couldn't have told you how and when that conversation happened.  So at the end, I'm finding myself remember so much about the beginning of that friendship.

Brandy in your life was like a good glass of his namesake sliding down the back of your throat.  Fiery, unpredictable, capable of making you do things you wouldn't normally do.  That wasn't a bad thing.  But life changed over the years, from those first heady days when as theater-major college grads, we imagined a world of creativity and artistic promise ahead of us.  And we were living the life we wanted to live.  It's easy on someone else's nickel.  Computers would be come his livelihood.  Dreams taking a backseat to struggles and love and real life.  I think that's part of what took him, in the end, not living the life he imagined.  It took him slowly and I saw his life change away from the things he wanted it to be.  His final text echoed that desire, to be back where his dreams lived.  Surfing with handicap kids in San Diego.  Creating something magical.

On Saturday night, my girlfriend and I went to see a musical tribute to Baz Lurhman's films, courtesy of a quick trip to the half-price tickets booth.  It was a small theater and the singing and dancing from Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby were all around us, sometimes so close I could see the spit fly from the actors mouths and hear the sound of their voices coming from deep inside their chests, not from the expansive and expensive audio system. And while I was captivated by the tremendous voices, I was more entranced by their energy.  I longed to jump up and run through the aisles with them.  I don't sing, except in the shower and the car, but I wanted to belt out every tune, throw myself across the stage.  It was almost an ache to sit still on the banquette.  I know from my cousin, who spent five years performing in a Vegas show, that it's a lot like groundhog day.  The glamour wears off when you do the same show twice a night for years.  But for me, everything was in that moment.  My own memories of being on stage, of feeling that kind of energy, that kind of passion.  Of not being so tired.  Because that's what I am now, and it sucks.  That's what Brandy was too, I think.  And his body said no more, or he said no more, it doesn't really matter now.

One doesn't normally go to Vegas for a heavy dose of introspection and clarity.  The McCarran airport on a Sunday is full of hazy people who are wearing clothes they don't recognize and can't figure out which hotel room was the one that actually belonged to them, let alone, why they have a hundred dollar bill tucked into their shoe.  But thanks to Miller, and a discussion about cars, and to Baz Lurhman, who is a weird dude, but I love his films, and to Brandy, who came along with me on the trip in the form of new memories every day, I did come back with an epiphany instead of a hangover.

So here's a little tough love to myself.  In print, in public, where I can't ignore it.  Write shit down.  All the time.  It's going to suck at first, but it'll get better again.  You'll find your words.  Don't get a new car.  Yet.  BUT...live like you can stroll into the dealer tomorrow.  Find a job that doesn't make you want to crawl in a hole when you come home from work.  It's not the hours that are making you tired, it's being in the wrong place doing the wrong thing.  Dance more.  In your living room, at the bar, go back to the Swing Dance Society where partners are easy to find and fun to twirl the room with.  Wear the crazy amazing shoes you bought in Vegas.  Even to the grocery store if need be and eventually, they'll take you the venue they were meant for.  Keep remembering Brandy.  Do him and yourself justice by taking the windy path instead of the straight one.  Be responsible, sure but defiant too, just a little bit, like Brandy on his chair at UCLA graduation, arm raised towards a future, ready to go there.  Remember, thank you Baz, that the most important thing, is to love and be loved, so you know, just go do that. 

This is in so many ways, the end.  Which is as good a place to begin as any.  Better, even.  Cheers to the dreamers and the artists, who do their work and then still find a way to live in their dream.  Brandy and I salute you and, maybe a little because of him, but mostly on behalf of me, and in the interest in living that life now instead of waiting for the right time for it to happen, I'm coming back to join you. 

Michael Brandon Valentino
Artist, Surfer, Dreamer, Brother, Friend
9/16/70 - 11/21/16

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thankful. That's all. Really Thankful

Thanksgiving is over.  Oh, there's still plenty of leftovers in the fridge, though I've done my best today to put a sizable dent in the stuffing, the bacon sage brussel sprouts and the apple pie.  It was a day of baking and pretending to watch football while really focusing on knitting and baking.  It was a day to spend with my family - my mom, my dad, my grandma and my boyfriend, Greg.  And it seems like it was over all too fast, that somehow, we should just be getting up from the table laden down with food, but here I am, passed the big meal, past two leftover feasts and almost ready for a meal with a different set of food components.  So instead of going to bed, I find myself here, reflecting on this particular Thanksgiving, because it passed so simply and easily after a battle of a year to get here and I'm thinking about the things I'm thankful for, because I realize I said one tiny thing when we went around the dinner table but there is just so much more.

That tiny thing is not so tiny, well she is, my little wisp of a grandma, but her presence is huge.  And I am so thankful for her.  At 96, when most of us have closed up shop and settled in for the LONG winter's nap, she's still out till the cows come home partying like a rock star.  Seriously, she has a better social life than I do.  We could all learn a thing or two from Mimi - like don't stop.  Excercise so long as you've got limbs to move.  You're never too old to drop a few g's on a macbook air and an iphone so don't forget how to use email, she's got it down better than some of my peers.  And really, just keep living like life is fun.  We'd all do better to take a little of her attitude to heart everyday.  I love having her in my life.  How can you go wrong with a grandma who's down for some sushi and a pedicure?

But there's more.  I am, and I know it sounds over the top, but I am so beyond grateful to be alive.  And to have the standard issue leg I came with.  I almost didn't have either of those, and that doesn't always hit me, but then sometimes it does and I just sit still for a minute and think about not being here.  It makes the tough stuff melt away for a minute or two.  That's all usually, I'm no superhero.  I hate the aches and pains, the struggle through rehab.  Normal stuff pisses me off too - I swear in bad traffic, have been less than polite to inept front desk workers and frequently fall victim to petty jealousy, fear or anger over the mundane.  But that's just life.  So it's kind of awesome, when you think about it, because I get to live it and have all these petty, silly feelings, and that's a victory.  Though I'm thankful there's this bigger thing that pulls me out of my everyday many times a week and gives me the kick in the pants reminder I need that the life you have isn't always the life you get to keep.  I thought I'd already learned that one, but I guess I needed the first person approach.  Duly noted this time.

And, yes, there's still more.  Because I'm thankful for the people around me, the ones I've argued with, the ones I've married myself to in business, the ones I've been friends with for years and years, the new ones I just made, the ones I'm related or almost related to and the special one I fell in love with.  Sharing my joys and fears, facing the challenge of confrontation, helping others, leaning on some, learning to communicate and work together in both business and love partnerships, it's all been rewarding, scary, awesome and a hell of an education.  I am a better, stronger person than I was a year ago and that's because of you.  You know who you are.  I've learned that sometimes you let go and sometimes you hang on, because when you've got the right team, it might be a wild ride with ups and downs, but it's all worth it in the end.

I thought I knew what scary was.  I thought I'd already been down the rabbit hole to the darkest places and come back out.  I didn't realize I was still hiding in the shadows, just inside the edge of the opening.  I know what scary is.  I know fear.  I stared down both sides of that, pardon my french, two-faced motherfucker.  And I'm still here, some days hanging on better than others, but still here, and I think that's something to be proud of.  A good place to put my feet in the ground and start walking forward.  Yeah, it's still baby steps, once in a while a leap or two, sometimes, who am I kidding, oftentimes a tangent here or there down a side road for a bit, but I always get there somehow.  I just have to remember what I've learned: that sometimes you gotta hang on, that the life you have isn't always the life you get to keep, and that really, the best thing you can do, which is a proven theory from a 96-year old, is just keep living life like it is fun.  It's like a monkey on a vine, hang on and swing baby, hang on and swing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On Writing...

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It’s been a while since I’ve been here.  In front of a blank page listening to the sound of the keyboard as I try to tell a story that isn’t in the form of an instruction manual or a marketing letter.  You might call it a creative writing rut.  I’ll just blame it on the opening of a new business, an untimely emergency appendectomy and an onslaught of holidays, all falling between October 28th and January 12th, better known as the toughest part of my year.  But if I’m going to finish my memoir, a challenging task under the best of situations, I’m out of excuses and it’s time to get back to the creative business of creating.

Don’t ask me why I was reading it, but February’s issue of Cosmo had a little segment on how to get started on turning a goal into a habit, using writing a novel as the example.  Timely and convenient for me, though I’m not sure about the majority of the Cosmo reading population.  At any rate, they suggested finding something to act as the catalyst before you start writing each time.  Something to connect to that will help mark the activity as a habit.  Then pick a reward to give yourself at the end of the activity to reinforce your good behavior.  Okay, I can do that.  I feel a little like a puppy in training but I’ll give it a shot. 

So this afternoon, I headed to the little exercise room next to my office.  It doesn’t get much use these days because I now have my own giant exercise room, also known as Crowbar Cardio.  But this tiny little corner holds my super-fancy yoga swing.  Yes, yoga swing.  As in yoga, not anything else you might be thinking.  I figured it was as good a catalyst as any, if not pretty brilliant, all things considered.  I would invert for a few minutes before writing.  A good dose of blood to the brain would do the trick, it would raise my energy level and hopefully boost the creative mojo.  I could definitely use some mojo.  I hung there in the dark, in an upside-down, feeling a little like a bat, thinking creativity boosting thoughts, till my head felt a little swimmy, and then slowly pulled myself and walked carefully to the computer.

And then I stared at the screen.  At the pages already written.  At my notes, which were an interesting challenge to decipher.  I wrote some more notes, a little more legibly this time.  I rearranged some things on the screen.  I wrote about three new sentences.  An hour and a half slowly crawled by.  It was hard.  Part of me wanted to bolt out of the seat.  But at the same time, it felt good.  In that way that something really hard means, well, something.  As I looked at the words on the page, I felt pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, and optimistic about what lies ahead.  I quit after 90 minutes.  I was supposed to do two hours, but nobody’s perfect on the first go.  I rewarded myself with a Girl Scout cookie.  Okay, two.  When the box is empty, I’ll have to come up with something else.  When the going is tough, and it will be, I’ll have to come up with something bigger and better.

A few hours later, as I drove to the studio to get ready to teach class, I thought about today.  I thought about writing a blog today, it is Monday after all, and I remembered that I once wrote about leaving Los Angeles and how it was kind of the end of a love affair – like I was breaking up with someone after a long relationship.  It got me to thinking that writing is kind of like a great love affair, at least it is for me.  It’s scary to find yourself in a great love affair.  What if you fail?  What if the words don’t come?  It’s going to be hard and there will be days when you can’t write a word, don’t know how the page, let alone the chapter or the whole story, is going to end.  But just like in a great love affair, you have to try, you have to persevere.  You have to keep writing, even when you don’t know the next word.  Because you don’t want to live without it.  Every word, every sentence, no matter how awkward or faltering, is another piece of your story on the page.  And, like a great love affair, when the sentences flow beautifully into one another like magic, as if they can’t run fast enough out of your fingers, every challenge becomes worth it and every fear falls away unfounded.  And in those moments, life is just a little bit perfect.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Going, Going, Gone


I’m getting a tattoo removed.  The painful, strange and sometimes disgusting process has been going on for about a year.  I thought when I started, I’d be all done by now, but it’s stubborn, and unfortunately made up of colors that are the hardest to remove, which is another note to self.  When people find out, they always ask why I want it off.  Does it have a bad memory, so scarring emotional echo that I’m trying to eradicate?  Nope, it’s kind of the opposite, actually.  It’s a tattoo with pretty good memories.  But it was ugly.  What had started out as a dainty butterfly just below my right big toe had become an amorphous blob, more dung beetle than colorful winged creature.

The little butterfly was my first tattoo.  I was twenty-years-old and on the proverbial verge of adulthood.  At least I thought so.  I wanted to mark the moment, commemorate what I saw as the spreading of my own wings.  I’ll say what you’re thinking.  It was a little cheesy.  I was twenty, and fancied myself poetic.  My little sister and one of my best childhood friends took me to get inked, on a hot summer night in Texas.  Somewhere in Deep Ellum, we found Tattoos by Lurch, though I think the artist’s name was Jeff or something equally banal.  Greg held my hand and my sister snapped photos as the needle staccato’d the simple black outline of a butterfly onto my foot. 

I should have kept it that way, but getting tattoos is, as they say, addicting.  Addicting enough that I have four, not so addicting that you can find them on me without me telling you where to look.  I already had another one, a little after my 21st birthday.  A year or so later, my sister was in LA for a visit.  She was eighteen and had decided it was her turn.  I watched the guy fill in three blue raindrops on this inside of her ankle and decided my little butterfly needed some color.  So I proffered up my toe for a consult and returned a few weeks later to get it filled in, which in hindsight was a bad idea.

If I have my way, and the removal process eventually wins its battle over the stubborn and unnecessarily significant amount of ink in my right foot, then both of my first two tattoos will no longer be visible.  The second one is already covered up by one that I love.  It was another one that didn’t evoke any bad memories, failed love affairs or other emotional traumas.  It was just bad.  It was applied to my skin by a man named Shock, in a tattoo parlor on Melrose, and it was not art.  Now that it’s been covered by something beautiful, drawn partly by a friend and partly by a tattoo artist who works in a place that keeps 9-5 hours and requires a pre-session consultation as well as several concept drawings by email, I have learned the difference between what I consider a tattoo artist and a tattoo technician.

It’s interesting to see something that’s been there since I was just shy of my twentieth birthday slowly fade from existence.  I don’t regret those first tattoos, despite the lack of proficiency with which they were emblazoned on my body.  They taught me an important lesson worth applying if you are considering permanent artwork.  And each experience made memories.  I’m not losing those precious moments spent with my sister every time the laser shatters more ink.  If anything, I remember them with more clarity, more detail.  As the Q-Switch has done its job, each session has actually made the tattoo brighter, brought back the old colors and sharpened the details of those memories.  And now, as the ink is slowly starting to fade and the dung beetle reverts to a butterfly and slowly, back to my skin, I know that the memories are not in the ink, but in me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Romance, A Writer's Conference & Snow White


On Saturday morning, I had a brief airport conversation, with a handsome not-quite stranger I know next to nothing about, on the subject of romance.  And then he disappeared onto a jet bridge.  The similarities between the scene and the topic were not lost on me.  We sat side by side for a moment, in the airport, surrounded mostly by travelers.  People we now knew so well they seemed like family, and people we said hi to in the hallways and people whose faces kind of maybe looked familiar.  Which is what happens when 250ish people leave the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference on the same day, and a sizable number of them descend on the tiny Burlington International Airport, which inexplicably claims itself as gateway to far flung destinations. 

It was only an unlikely airport conversation topic if those doing the talking weren’t two overly cerebral writers.  Don’t think that I’m conveying superiority here.  I mean to say that we both agreed that, potentially to our own detriment, we often think too much.  Or maybe we don’t, maybe it’s all the thinking that makes things interesting.  The ticket agent made an unintelligible announcement on the loudspeaker, and saying goodbye, the handsome not-quite-stranger took his leave. 

“See you sometime,” I said, and then waited.  For the next 8 or so hours.  Not for him, that would not be romantic, that would be a little weird.  I waited for the plane I had started to think might never come.  At two I bought another sandwich.  At six, I began to hoard my candy rations when the two kiosks closed, and then prayed for deliverance.  At least to D.C. where the airport would have restaurants inside security.  I had lost all hope of making a connecting flight.  The short of a very long story is that I got home Sunday, instead of Saturday, which I think is the reason I keep thinking today is Monday.  So when I sat down to write an essay many Monday’s overdue, realized it was Tuesday, and admitted that I was well and truly fried from ten days of intensity and proximity, to both my feelings and to people, I started writing from the first thought that popped into my head.

Wikipedia says the notion of romance is about love that emphasizes emotion over libido.  “I sat on the steps and watched the hookups as they happened,” he said, or something like that, just a bit before they announced boarding for his flight.  He was referring to the writers making the most of a final evening of drinking and communal living.  The ones eagerly reliving their college years.  Or last week.  Sometimes Bread Loaf is known as “Bed Loaf.”  Not without good reason, though it seems to me it takes some creativity to pull off a tryst with so many people in such close proximity.  Or maybe some latent exhibitionist tendencies.  I wouldn’t know. 

“I’m not sure I really get it,”  he said.  “I’m not sure I ever got that notion, truly.  I suppose maybe I’m more like a girl in that respect.”  But is that like a girl, really?  Or is it that romance is owned by those of us who spend as much time thinking about the world as we do living in it?  I don’t believe a propensity for romance is as much an indication of femininity as it is of thoughtfulness.  And as much as it seems like it’s a good thing, being a romantic can certainly be a detriment in a world where people most definitely do not “think” the same way.  Sitting at the airport, we both wondered whether or not it might be a good thing to be able to turn off the brain, just let go and let it happen. 

A guy I dated recently told me that he didn’t believe in romance.  He blamed the notion on Disney, said decades of princesses and happily ever after’s had ruined things for modern relationships.  Ever the romantic, there’s a limited edition vintage poster from Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs on my wall, I thought I might convince him otherwise.  But there’s that old adage about changing someone, and convincing is just a fancy word for the same thing.  Now I realize that he just didn’t think about love in the same way I do.  For him it wasn’t something to be explored in sprawling thoughts or ideas.  The physicality of it was enough of an expression for him.  And that’s not wrong, it’s just not my way.  For me it has to be cerebral – love, sex, a kiss in a dark corner – they all tell a story.  It’s never just a moment in time, there’s always a before and an after.  A why.  A why not.  Something leads up to those moments and something lingers after them – a compliment, a sidelong glance, a promise, a memory.  All of which have meaning, all of which convey emotion. 

Being a romantic isn’t easy.  We’re emotional, obviously.  Prone to big ideas and gestures.  We daydream a lot.  Which is maybe why I’m klutzy.  But it’s not about being masculine or feminine and I don’t think you can switch it on and off at will, though sometimes, I think it might be nice to try.  Given the option, however, to be one or the other, I think I’ll keep my head in the game of hearts.  It’s only painful to be a romantic if you can’t find another one.  But there are always other ones.  Besides, I’m okay with a little Disney in my life – far flung romance, grand gestures, long lost loves, mysterious encounters, soul mates and all. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Welcome to the Club


The words and tears tumbled out at the same time.  Her thoughts clearly jumbled and her sentences inarticulate and meandering.  Exactly how anyone would be, sitting in a room full of strangers forty-two days after their sibling died.  Patience, I told myself, remembering back almost twelve years.  She’s new to the club.  I looked around the room at the people I was spending an hour or so leading through a workshop on sibling loss.  Some I knew from eight years of workshops in hotel conference rooms around the country.  Some were new, either because it had taken them till now to find us, or because at about this time last summer, they were blissfully ignorant that there was such a thing as The Compassionate Friends.  They had yet to be initiated into the club nobody wants to join.  Their brothers and sisters were still alive.

It was a chilling thing this year, to wake up on a sunny morning in Costa Mesa to the news of the late night movie massacre.  As I heard the news while getting ready for the first full day of a conference to support bereaved parents and siblings, my first thought was some of them will be here next year.  It happened post-Columbine, just before I became a member, and post 9/11, after my sister died, but before I knew there was such a thing as TCF.  And so, a brother or sister of one of the slain would very likely be sitting in one of my workshops in Boston next July.  A parent who lost a child to a late night movie could be in the workshop where I sit on a panel along with other veteran siblings, helping to explain to them why their surviving child, that remaining brother or sister won’t talk, won’t share, turned to drugs, left school or just can’t stop being so angry at the world.  So much of the world is fascinated with the villain.  Many more are moved to make sure we remember that he is not important, that we should be focused on remembering the ones that he killed.  All I could think about, on that day of all days, as I walked through too-crowded halls of the hotel, was of the families left full of empty holes.  Families who would need this place.

I was a few years out from Wendy’s death when I found TCF.  Now I’m a veteran.  An expert at grief, qualified run workshops, sit on panels.  Experienced enough to share my story, to help someone else through the process.  Credentials claimed out of necessity to make some sense of my own loss, make a difference to someone else and hopefully make both of us feel just a tiny bit better in the process.  It’s not all tears and run-on sentences and harsh reality.  In many ways, the weekend is an escape, like summer camp for the bereaved.  Where you don’t have to explain a thing to your friends.  No one wonders why your eyes are red, you are never the only one doing the ugly cry, and someone’s always there to hand you a drink and know exactly why you need it. 

Don’t think we don’t have any fun.  My regular crew is a rebellious bunch.  We take over the nearest bar at night.  You can usually find a handful by the pool on a break, or maybe during a workshop session when it’s all just too much.  We sit in the back row at opening and closing ceremonies and act like we’re twelve, making fun of the guest choir who always performs awkward dance/sign language numbers to cheesy pre-recorded music that they don’t sing along to, while wearing strange, cult-like white outfits draped in long, colorful robes.  This year we joked that we should form a counter choir.  We would call ourselves Hand Jive International, only perform to gangsta rap, and sign all the wrong words.  Maybe we would wear lots of sequins and sparkly gloves.  We’re all adults and we could skip the performances, but where would be the fun in that?  So we’re also kind of joiners, because at the end of the day, if we have to be a part of the club, we might as well reap the benefits.  We’ve formed friendships that have lasted long past three days in a Hilton, connections that run deeper than others we have in our daily lives.  These strangers, from all over the country and all walks of life have become my brothers and sisters.  We have each other’s backs, have to come to each other’s rescue and are an integral part of each others lives. 

As hard as they are, I’m grateful for these three days.  I’m humbled by the gratitude of others and the strength of everyone in that hotel.  I am in awe of my fellow siblings.  You’re a family I did not want, but one that I’m glad I now have.  I’m a better person for the days that I spend in your company.

And to the brothers and sisters of Jessica Ghawi, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, John Larimer, Alexander Boik, Jesse Childress, Jonathan Blunk, Rebecca Ann Wingo, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Micayla Medek and Alexander C. Teves, I think I can speak for all of my TCF crew when I say we wish we didn’t have to offer out our hands in solidarity and support, but there all extended.  We’ll be here if you need us.