Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Findings, Musings and the Bag We Drag Behind Us

January 1, 2013


I carry a small spiral notepad and a pen with me at all times. Over the years, I have filled many pages with random notations, scribbled down in bad handwriting, since  I tend to record information quickly lest I forget it. I stow these notebooks in a basket on top of a bookshelf. Each time I complete a new one, I add it to the basket.

This morning, I opened the basket and thumbed through several of them. On the pages, I found not only recorded personal reflections, interesting words to remember, books to read, passing observations, lists, musings and recipes, but overheard conversations, too.

Like this one.

Overheard on a Southwest flight out of Vegas:

Guy #1: “Here’s a picture of my kid. He’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, but a real clingy two year-old, ya know? It’s cause I’m hardly ever there.”

Takes another picture from his wallet and shows it to Guy #2.

Guy #2: “Hey, you  married up!”

Guy #1: That’s right, dude. I upgraded. Traded in all my coupons for this one.”

Guy #2 returns the photo. Stretches and groans. “That was a big luncheon. Get all the hunkers out of your teeth?”

*  *  *

Overheard in an East Hampton gallery:

“Don’t operate heavy machinery while speaking to him.”


Overheard in random places in L.A.:

“God didn’t create Hitler. He created man and said, hey, you’re on your own.”

“Then we went to a Russian McDonalds. Beautiful! Two stories high. I bought him French fries. He never had them. They are very poor. They only eat bread and cabbage and whatever.”

“You were in labor…and I slept with your man.”


Overheard at the Four Seasons Chevron station in Tehachapi, CA:

“We went to Divorce Court and the judge wiped away his tears with my checkbook.”


Memorable Quotes:  

“A friend is someone who will help you move.  A good friend is someone who will help you move a body.”  (Anon.)

“There are daggers in men’s smiles.”  (Macbeth)

 “I felt the wind in the wing of madness.” (title of a Cy Twomby painting appropriated from Baudelaire)

“Everyone who tells you how to act has whiskey on their breath.”  (John Updike)

“In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep.”  (Faulkner, As I Lay Dying)

“A portrait is a picture where something is wrong with the mouth.”  (artist John Singer Sargeant)

“You’re like Virgil to my Dante.”  (unknown)


On the menu at Chico’s Mexican Food, Barstow, CA:

APPETIZERS: Liquified Guacamole (dispensed from a plastic squeeze bottle)

EATS: Buches; Tripitas; Milanesa; Lomo; Pata; Cabeza; Mojo Potatoes; Foul tasting Burrito

SOFT DRINKS: Horchata; Tamarindo; Jamaica


Sign hanging outside the Cactus Bar in Salome, AZ (Rt. 60):



Not sure what language this is (Farsi?):

“Cheh khabar?”  (What’s new?)

“Hichee.”   (Not much.)


Read on a placard at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, CA: 

Shiva’s wife, Parvati, who was very lovely, collected the divine dirt from her own body while bathing and created a little boy with it — she asked the child to guard the door of her dressing room and not let anyone in. Shiva tried to enter the door and saw Ganesha [the little boy] guarding the door. He didn’t know Ganesha was his son and so he cut off the boy’s head.

Parvati was overcome with grief. Shiva ordered his dwarf companions to bring back the nearest head they could find. They first creature they encountered was an elephant. Shiva placed the head of the elephant on Ganesha’s body, breathed life into him and welcomed him into the family.



From some Writers:

Hunter S. Thompson would re-type Hemingway’s books so he could absorb how he composed sentences.

From Washington Irving: “There are 3 stages of Man: Youth, Middle Age, and You Haven’t Changed  A Bit.”

From Toni Morrison: “If you can’t count, they can cheat you. If you can’t read, they can beat you.”

From Nietzsche:

“Resentment is the least explored of the primary human motivations. There are certain types of people who can’t improve their own place in the world, so they devote all their time and energies to tearing down others.”  He called these people, “tarantulas.”


Me and my Violin (a “list” I’d compiled):

  • Bought my first fiddle from the “Buylines” [after I broke my engagement, I taught myself to play from an antique book on violin bowing purchased for 10 cents in a thrift shop];
  • Playing Irish jigs at the Liffey Tavern in Jackson Heights on St. Paddy’s Day [this was decades ago; IRA members were present; IRA songs were sung];
  • The Victorian print hanging on the living room wall of my childhood home [picturing three women musicians dressed in flowery gowns; one of them was out on the veranda playing the violin; as a child, I would gaze longingly at that painting, losing myself in it, and imagine myself as her];
  • Whenever my Uncle Frankie visited [he brought along his guitar along and played us “hillbilly songs;” he sang and yodeled; I must have developed my love of old time country music from him];
  • Lullaby of Birdland [??? not sure why I added this to the list — except that my father, a music-lover but not a musician by any stretch (though he yearned to be one), tried in vain to learn this song on the piano; he would pound out the first two lines of the song with two fingers for hours — driving us all crazy — and never once changing the chord; fiddle players call this practice “woodshedding” — take ye to the woodshed so we don’t have to listen to ye];
  • My fiddle lessons in Chatsworth, CA at the Bluegrass Pickin’ Parlor [filled in the many blanks in my self-learning];
  • Playing my parents favorite songs from the 1930s and 40s on the piano while they sang along [our happiest times as a family];
  • Beethoven’s Violin and Piano Sonata No. 10 in G [the 78 rpm record album my father brought home for me when I was 10 years old, which someone had thrown in the trash (the perks of working for the NYC Sanitation Dept.);  (remember those fat old records you played with a needle the width of a thumb tack?) — the beginning of my deep abiding love of classical music. Loved it so much, my father brought home 78 rpm albums of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth…and many more].


Revelatory notes made while reading Robert Bly’s “A Little Book on the Human Shadow” (highly recommended reading – I’ve reread it many times):

Some beautiful lines from the book, by way of a preface:

“We notice that when sunlight hits the body, the body turns bright, but it throws a shadow, which is dark. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Each of us has some part of our personality that is hidden from us…

…Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school, our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Minnesota we were known as ‘the nice Bly boys.’ Our bags were already a mile long.”

  • By the age of 7, the “bag” I dragged behind me was filling up. I tied a knot in it so I couldn’t access the hurt.
  • When was the first “deposit” made inside the bag? At birth, when the cord was wrapped around my neck and turned me blue? Or in the apartment in Bed Sty when the rat came in my crib? Or was it moving to Long Island in the middle of kindergarten and leaving all my friends behind in Brooklyn?


I’ve made only a slight “dent” in reading my stack of notebooks…but going backward, before going forward, may be a wise way to start the New Year.

…the universe squeezed into a ball…” (T.S. Eliot)

November 19, 2012


(all that’s missing, above, is the easel)

*   *  *   *



What a joy having FOUR whole days off from work in a row!

Away from the office FRIDAY, SATURDAY and SUNDAY is wonderful enough, yes.

But — waking up on MONDAY, with the knowledge that all the other employees in your section of the office are reporting to work and YOU ARE NOT — is beyond wonderful.

During this particular FOUR-DAY weekend, quality time was on the agenda.



I finished the painting I’ve been working on!


(apologies for the grainy iPhone photo)


Practiced Schumann’s Remembrance on the piano  (a small piece I’ve always liked; I’m determined to learn and memorize it).


Woke up early and drove to the Jericho Cider Mill on Long Island; stocked up on all things apple: Cameo apples (my favorite), apple cider, apple sauce; apple turnovers; apple oat bran muffins…

Apple Nirvana


I found a THURSDAY parking spot (which means we won’t have to move the car until one week after Thanksgiving)!


I read the essay on T. S. Eliot by Mark Ford from the New York Review of Books that I had dog-eared a month ago and set aside for a later date.

Facts I learned from this detailed, erudite review of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (3 volumes) by Valerie Eliot (Eliot’s widow):

  • Eliot was born into a comfortable, Unitarian family in St. Louis, MO and summered with them in East Gloucester.
  • An anglophile, he moved to England and readily acquired an accent. He became more “English” than the English. He  joined the Anglican church and eventually became a citizen.
  • He was born under the sign of Libra, went to Oxford, studied philosophy and Sanskrit, taught at Harvard.
  • Eliot was a virgin when he married his first wife, Vivienne, after knowing her for just a couple of months.
  • Vivienne suffered from mood swings. She was diagnosed with a “hormonal imbalance” (parlance of the day for what resembled bipolar disorder) and endured a host of physical problems; i.e. “female problems” (another euphemism).
  • Vivienne lived on a trust fund endowed by her wealthy family, over which Eliot would later assume governance.
  • Virginia Woolf once called Vivienne “a bag of ferrets.”
  • Ezra Pound was a friend of Eliot’s and was instrumental in launching his career as a poet.
  • Bertrand Russell, also a friend, lent the newlyweds one of his flats and was rumored to have had an affair with Vivienne.
  • Poetry notwithstanding, Eliot was encouraged by his father-in-law to take a position in a bank.
  • In one of his letters, Eliot describes what it was like working in the bank:

“I hope to become less of a machine–but yet I am frightened–because I don’t know what it will do to me–and to V.–should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses–I have deliberately died–in order to go on with the outward form of living–What will happen if I live again?…Have I the right to be I–But the dilemma–to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person?”


  • The misery of Eliot’s bank job produced these lines:

He didn’t know if he was alive / and the girl was dead

He didn’t know if the girl was alive / and he was dead

He didn’t know if they both were alive / or both were dead


  • The opportunity in hand, the next logical step was to re-watch the film, Tom and Viv. Which I did.

I first saw the film in the mid-1990’s when it was released. With Willem DeFoe, Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris, it’s a gorgeous film. The character of Ezra Pound is noticeably absent (perhaps because he was an anti-semite). But the film includes Bertrand Russell (an extramarital affair, or the allusion to one, naturally being a more juicy topic).


  • To complete my experience of total T. S. Eliot immersion, I pulled from the bookshelf my marked up college edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and re-read The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

As I contemplate (dread, more like) returning to work tomorrow, these lines stand out:

“And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’

Time to turn back and descend the stair…”


I’ve made a promise to myself that, one day, I will dare.

But in my case, my descent will take place in the elevator — and I’ll be eating that peach.

Books and Reading and Commuting in 2010

January 17, 2011


Last October, when I moved back to New York, I looked forward to doing lots of reading on my morning and evening commute to and from work.

In less than 15 months — mid-October through this past December — I’ve read 54 books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s approximately 4 books per month (or 1-a-week). Not that I’m counting, but 2010 was the first year I’d actually kept a list.

Because I love talking about and sharing the names of books I’ve enjoyed with like-minded readers, I’ve taken the liberty of  listing my favorites of 2010.

Honorable mentions are also included, as are would-have-been-favorites, if not for their disappointing endings. There were also some real clunkers. But, I’ve left the clunkers off the list. I don’t have the heart to pan a novel outright, because I’m more than aware of the blood, sweat and tears that are part of the novel-writing process.

Anyway, here are my lists.

My Favorite Books of 2010 — in no particular order of importance or release date — (these are books I continue to think about long after I’ve finished them; books that changed my way of thinking on some level; books that are deftly written).

1) Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (Antonia Fraser) – Diary entries, excerpted from Fraser’s own, beginning the moment these two eloquent writers first meet, at a party. Fraser, about to leave, walks over to Pinter, who is seated. He looks up at her and says: “Must you go?” A true love story and literary delight.

2) Brooklyn (Colm Toibin) – A pithy story, heartfelt, poignant, surprising, with such beautifully drawn characters. A twist of fate, misreading of intentions, wrong assumptions, alter the lives of the characters forever.

3)  Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout) – A series of stories linked by the formidable character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher. Warmly crafted, elegantly written, with an ending so perfectly rendered, you’ll rejoice.

4)  The First Family – The Birth of the American Mafia (Mike Dash) – A fascinating, obsessive factual account of the beginnings of the Mafia in this country, grandfathered by a fiercely murderous individual nicknamed “The Clutch Hand.”

5) Mattahorn – (Karl Marlantes) – A tour de force fictionalized account of Marlantes’ harrowing tour of Vietnam as a Marine. Unputdownable.

6)  Bright-Sided – How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America (Barbara Ehrenreich) – A breath of fresh air. Smart, trenchant and honest exploration of America’s penchant for denial.

7) Into the Wild (John Krakauer) – A fantastic book, which I’ve just gotten around to reading. Maybe you’ve seen the film adaptation. As good as that was, read the book.

8) Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s (Tim Page) – A funny, astonishing, emotionally educational and heartbreaking account of living with this Asperger’s, by a brilliant writer and music critic.

9) The Sea (John Banville) – Lovely prose, witty, atmospheric, it’s a book I didn’t want to end. Highly recommended.

10) Tree of Life (Hugh Nisseson) – Haunting, unique, unlike any other book I’ve read before. I will never view Johnny Appleseed in the same way again. Nisseson is an amazing writer.

11) Just Kids (Patti Smith) – Very entertaining, great writing.  A loving, revealing chronicle of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, full of juicy tidbits, characters and anecdotes of the time period.

12) Suite Française (Iréne Némirovsky) – Set in Paris during the Nazi occupation — a novel that resurfaced years after the author’s death at the hands of the occupiers. Enough said. Don’t miss it.

13) The Night Stalker (Philip Carlo) – A masterpiece of the genre of true crime (my guilty pleasure reading).

14) Abide With Me (Elizabeth Strout) – Stunning in its irreverence, emotional depth and spare writing. An eccentric minister and his young, motherless daughter endure the small-mindedness of a small town, with grace and strength of character. A spiritual triumph.

15) Morphus Eugenia (A.S. Byatt) – a.k.a. “Angels and Insects.” Nothing short of fantastic. The “underside of the tapestry,” to quote Joan Didion.

16)  Stitches (David Small) – A graphic memoir focusing on a horrific truth withheld from Small in his childhood. Starkly rendered illustrations. Beautifully done.

17)  Fierce Attachments (Vivan Gornick) – Exemplary memoir. Superbly written.

Honorable Mention (more than worthy reads):

1) This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper) – Very funny – Tropper has a great sense of humor – it’s his heartfelt account of the confusion, sorrow and attempts to move on after a breakup of his marriage.

2) The Privileges (Jonathan Dee) – Witty, erudite, sharply written – I admired the writing, but disliked all the characters, which made it difficult, in the end, to like the book.

3) Sag Harbor (Colson Whitehead) – A coming of age novel about what it was like to spend your summers growing up as a young black man in one of the black communities of Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the 1980s. Add a star if you’ve lived in or are familiar with the area.

4) The Signal (Ron Carlson) – Haunting, in the way only Ron Carlson can be haunting. Suspenseful story of a once-happy marriage, now over, and the erstwhile couple’s final, annual, camping trip in a forest teeming with danger.

5) Invisible (Paul Auster) – A story within a story, what you’d expect from an Auster novel, this time venturing into deeper psychological territory than some of his others, centering around an incestuous relationship — and, then again, maybe not.  Not my favorite Auster novel, but, I’m a longtime fan of his writing.

6) The Possessed (Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) (Elif Bauman) – Liked it, especially when she mentioned Russian authors I’d actually read. Not as enjoyable when she wrote about those I hadn’t. Bauman’s mind is perceptively keen and she’s so damn smart — I just loved what she had to say about writers’ groups and workshops.

7) Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (Chris Stewart) – An armchair traveler’s delight, written by the former drummer of “Genesis” and talented sheep-shearer, who leaves England and buys a broken down farm in Anadalucia, where he and his wife put down roots and befriend one of the colorful locals.

8) Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Wells Tower) – Read this collection, so you won’t miss his unforgettable story, “The Leopard,” which, when it first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, just thrilled me. It’s that good. I’d read the story twice at the time, back to back, and was delighted to encounter it again in this collection. All the stories are well worth your time.

9) Bitter Harvest (Ann Rule) – An insane, brilliant physician in Kansas slowly poisons her husband. One of Rule’s better true crime thrillers.

10) Lay of the Land (R. Ford) – I began this book shortly after it was released. Got about 2/3 of the way through. Put it aside. Picked it up a few years later, in 2010, and finished it. The fact that I had been stalled, well, I supposed the story had slowed down a bit. But — I did remember everything I had read up to that point, when I picked it up again, so that says a lot. I’m a fan of Ford’s writing, and have a soft spot for his novels (not to mention that I’d met him at a reading and he’d signed this very book, so I was obliged to finish it). I’ve read the first two novels in this trilogy, “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” and also his short story collection, “A Multitude of Sins” – which I loved. This last novel is not his best, perhaps, but I feel as if I have come to know Frank Bascombe intimately (the main character that appears in all three novels). And, in the end, I was satisfied to have finished it.

11) Backing into Forward (Jules Feiffer) – For years, I was a fan of Feiffer’s cartoon strip in The Village Voice, which led me to this memoir. It’s one of the few books I actually “purchased” in 2010 – some of his strips (which I actually remembered – this was a plus, too) are reprinted in the book.

12) Lost and Found (Essays about N.Y.) (Various) – Just plain enjoyable. Add some stars if you live in N.Y.

13) Diary of a Mad Housewife (Sue Kaufman) – A reread of an old favorite. Still enjoyable, but a bit dated, this time around. By the way, the novel was made into a very entertaining movie, starring Richard Benjamin, Carrie Snodgrass and a very young and handsome Frank Langella (playing the part of one of the most cold-hearted, miserable, nasty, egotistical writers you’d ever want to meet, let alone sleep with). Still waiting for it to come out on DVD…

14) Dear Husband (Joyce Carol Oates) – A collection of stories. I loved “Death by Fitness Center,”  which made me laugh out loud. Most of the collection is on the grim side, which I don’t mind, such as her fictionalized story about Andrea Yates, the born-again mother who had a psychotic break and killed her kids. I’ve always admired Oates’ writing and compassion for abused women and how she keeps them in the collective consciousness by writing about them.

Good books with disappointing endings:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery) – At the end, the main characters weepy breakdown in a restaurant, of all places, seemed totally out of character. Kind of ruined the book for me.

– This Book Could Save Your Life (A.M. Homes) – Very enjoyable, until it’s Hollywood ending.

– The Three Weissmanns (Cathleen Shine) – Compulsively readable and funny, but the ending was a letdown, too Hallmark. I felt cheated.

Should have taken a pass:

Nothing Was the Same (Key Redfield Jamison) –  Jamison’s memoir, The Unquiet Mind, about her bipolar disorder, was piercing, powerful and poetic, and infinitely better.

– The Hilleker Curse (James Ellroy) – Yes, we know that Ellroy is a flamboyant egomaniac and self-promoter. In keeping with that reputation, he shares the details of his romantic conquests and so-called relationships in a decidedly unromantic, rather emotionless way. Frankly, he comes across as an idiot in his behavior, but without a fulcrum of irony or humor. Why would these women choose to live with him, I continually asked myself as I read? Worst of all, he blames his bad behavior and relationship failures on the “Hilleker Curse” (i.e., his lifelong hangup on his mother and her shocking murder). So why did I BUY this book? Because Ellroy’s “My Dark History,” a memoir of his mother’s murder, is a masterpiece.

Sh*t My Dad Says (Justin Halpern) – A subtitle to this book might be: Sh*t His Son Writes. Sorry, I had to include this clunker – it’s on the N.Y.T. bestseller list (!)  Come on, America.

Last, but not least: Some Good Books About the Craft of Writing:

– Writing About Your Life (William Zinsser) – A memoir-writing classic.

– Don’t Quit Your Day Job (edited by Sonny Brewer) – A terrific collection of essays by Southern writers.

– My Reading Life (Pat Conroy) – I’ve never read any of Conroy’s novels (have opened one or two in a bookstore and flipped through them). I did enjoy this memoir, however, and read it obsessively on my commute. The opening chapter dedicated to mother is really beautiful. My eyes teared up twice on the F train.

The Art and Craft of Fiction (Victoria Mixon) – I recently ordered this book from Mixon’s website (she’s an editor) and have just begun reading. Not at all like the usual how-to writing books that are on the market. It’s so much more than that. Chocked with vital, well thought out suggestions, specifics you won’t find elsewhere. You can read excerpts and buy the book on her site Highly recommended.

As always, your comments and book suggestions are most welcome. Happy Reading…

Notes from Under the Radar

September 17, 2010

Angel of Provincetown

In early September, during our much-too-brief sojourn with dear friends in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I found myself caught in the thrall of this boy angel (as you can see, I wasn’t the only one) and snapped a picture.

I’d forgotten all about him until last evening when a monstrous thunderstorm raged through Jackson Heights. Just as I alighted from a city bus into the enervating warmth and humidity, lightning struck. In a radiant, booming flash, deafening and savage — and close enough to rattle my eardrums and nerves — a fierce, fiery torch touched down a mere block away. Frightened to the quick  — I’ve never been so near to a lightning strike — I ducked and scrambled in the pelting rain and fled into the lobby of my building.

It was not until this morning — after I’d called in sick to work, felled by a cold, sinus infection, ear problem — that I thought about the boy angel.

It was as if the constraints on my imagination had been loosed by the singular fact of making that phone call. I was free — free to be me — at least for a day.

Unencumbered by the tiresome admonitions of a particular self-important pair of creepy coworkers mired in pedantry that have the power to absolutely ruin your day from the get-go — I suddenly felt like me again.

What a feeling.

I continued to mull over the weather incident a bit more, suddenly having precious free time on my hands. It did cross my mind that the lightning strike was the reappearance of my guardian boy angel, as I’ve come to regard him, paying a visit to New York in a different guise. Behaving in a similar fashion to that of the Tower card in the Tarot: deploying the shock of the unexpected to rattle me.

It so happens that the novel I am — was, will get back to soon, oh, the remorse of not working, the sorrow of day jobs — writing, has quite a bit to do with lightning. The inference of this lightning strike as it relates to my novel also “struck” me this morning.

N.B.: to the menaces from my day job who might happen click into my blog — unlikely, since the Queen of Tedium who reigns over my section of the office, ominously coined “The Cave,” once uttered: Why would anyone write a blog? — bugger off!

This is the same wet horse blanket who proclaimed for all to hear: I hate art museums. They’re so boring. I can’t be in one for more than ten minutes.

Good — then, please keep away. More room for the rest of us.

That inane comment begs a quote from the brilliant critic Arthur Danto, who wrote, when blogging about the artist Marina Abramovic:  “A work of art and a mere shipping carton can look exactly alike. What explains the difference? What is the difference between sitting down with someone in a performance and merely sitting down with someone? The work of art has meaning; it is about something. And it embodies that meaning.”

(Shipping cartons of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your strapping tape.)

There’s always more than meets the eye.


Out To Lunch

May 8, 2010

Noon-time nap at the Central Park Zoo

Which reminds me of that old joke.

“What do you like best about your job?”


Yet, it is glorious being outdoors for that precious hour between noon and one o’clock, soaking up the greenery inside this splendid park, a mere two-minute walk from my job.

Each Monday through Friday, it’s just me and the polar bears, my cheese sandwich and a book. Seated on an oak bench enveloped in the shade a flowering crabapple tree, I nibble on the cheddar, sip my complementary workplace coffee, and read.

Recently, the book was The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Shine. I’d hitched onto a library queue of considerable length — 157 readers long — and waited over a month or so before it arrived at my library.

For the most part, it was worth the wait. Big-hearteded and warm, it’s the story of a 70-something, well-heeled Jewish woman (as in: multi-room co-op on Central Park West) whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. As a result of the divorce, she is forced out of the apartment. The trophy wife moves in with her wizened better half.

But, all is not lost. She is offered a place to stay by an avuncular close relation. Accompanied by two adult daughters, who are going through life changes of their own, they all move into this family “cottage” in Westport, CT. A protracted slumber party ensues.

Yes, Wesport, CT, you heard right. So…don’t cry for me, Argentina. We should all be so miserable.

For about three-quarters of the book, I was thoroughly engaged. The writing is funny, heartfelt, smart. But, then, my interest began to wane. Primarily because I saw the ending coming from a mile away and prayed the author wouldn’t go there, or there, or there.

What a disappointment when she did, she did, she did. Tying up all the characters’ lives into a neat little bow, just so. A shame, because Shine is a good writer. A shame for me, anyway. Maybe you don’t agree.

The Strand outpost on Fifth Ave.

Shine’s book notwithstanding, all most definitely was not lost. Near the entrance to Central Park, The Strand bookstore has had this little outpost here for decades. In case you don’t know it, their main store is downtown on Broadway near 12th Street. 18 miles of books, claims their slogan. Worth a visit, definitely.

Looking for something new to read as I awaited the arrival of the next book on my library queue, I stopped at the outpost to browse their sidewalk tables, which were crammed with an eclectic, literary selection of used and discounted books. Many posts ago, I think I mentioned how enchanted I was with Colm Toibin’s latest novel Brooklyn. I’m still haunted by the story and its characters. I find myself thinking about it when I least expect it.

For me, that’s a measure of a good book.

Anyway, during my browsing I happened to come across, of all things, a copy of Toibin’s very first novel, titled The South. He wrote it while in his thirties.

I snatched it up for a couple of dollars. He’s a marvelous writer. The prose is sensitively wrought, spare yet dense, compassionate and warm without being treacly, which I’ve found to be so characteristic of the Irish, as a people. In both novels, he is writing from a woman’s POV — and he’s astoundingly good at it.

Toibin is becoming my new favorite writer. I can’t wait to read more of him.

Coincidentally, during that same browse fest at The Strand, I came across a book I’d not heard of by my old favorite writer, Paul Auster, called A Man in the Dark. Bought it, too.

And how could I leave without picking up the essay collection I found stacked next to it, by Joan Didion (it’s called After Henry). It’s an older volume of hers, but it is new to me.

Last but not least, a slim vintage paperback by James M. Cain (of The Postman Always Rings Twice fame) caught my eye. Particularly its hand-painted cover. The title? Jealous Woman.

And it reads just like a Bogey and Bacall movie, Sweetheart. Fabulous.

In the Meme Time…

March 8, 2010

This morning, without anything to read at breakfast — the Cheerios box was a few O’s short of a serving and, so, no need to bring out the milk container and its engaging side panel — I spread peanut butter on toast and brewed a cup of tea.

As much as I like good eating, preparing meals — even something as simple as running the toaster in the a.m. — can be a chore when you’re not in the mood.

At such times, I find myself wishing I could just squeeze my meals out of a tube, like an astronaut.

At any rate, this morning I resigned myself to sitting down and flipping through the Sunday N.Y. Times magazine as I munched on my toast.

The Times has been featuring a celebrity “meme” in the weekly magazine. The meme acts as a sort of framing device for the profile of the creative person or titan of industry that’s being featured. It’s entertaining, light reading and there’s no danger that its content will interfere with your digestion.

This week’s “profile” of the very talented clothes designer Phillip Lim filled the time delightfully. A sweet, refreshingly guileless man of impeccable taste, it was a joy getting to know more about the talented, Thai-born Lim.

As I was reading his answers, I couldn’t help but formulate my own answers, simultaneously. Doesn’t everyone do this? How can you not?

So then I thought: why not create an abridged version of this week’s NYT’s meme for my next post.  Here’s what  I came up with (please feel free to take this meme and adopt it as your own — and why not? I filched most of it from The Times:

ACCIDENTAL CAREER: Back when I was living in L.A., I started out working for two designers who created packaging for videos and, later, DVDs. Lots of 150-word film synopses would routinely cross my desk during the day. Some of them were pretty dull. One day, I said to myself, “I could do better than this,” and offered my services. And that’s how I started out getting paid to write.

FAVORITE CLOTHING ERAS: I’ve always loved jackets with tapered waistlines and peplums, like this 1940s vintage style:

ITEM OF CLOTHING I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT: My super comfortable and still stylish Calvin Klein camouflage-print cargo pants.

FIRST PIECE OF ART ACQUIRED FOR THE HOUSE: Our first purchase of real art was an African healing/power figure, which I’ve nicknamed “Nail Boy.”

ALWAYS ON ME: My wedding band.

MISCONCEPTION ABOUT ARTISTS: That we don’t work hard. That making art is easy and that natural talent precludes struggle.

MORNING ROUTINE: I hate alarms. I’ve never been one to leap out of bed. I need to ease myself into consciousness. When my sister and I shared a room as kids, we’d kept a cheap record player on the floor in between our beds. On school days, the first thing in the morning, my mom would bang on our door, raise the shades and shout, “Rise and shine!” It was hellish. But not until my hand had reached for that turntable, flipped on the switch and placed the chunky needle in the groove of the 78 rpm recording of the “William Tell Overture” spinning on top, was I able to even consider getting up. Even then, my head never left the pillow until the sounding of the trumpets. I’m still the same way.


FATHER ARTIFACT: His picture I.D. from the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, a souvenir of his very first job.

WORKDAY LUNCH: Again, if I could, I’d go the way of the astronaut. Typically, though, it’s a sandwich — using whatever’s in the fridge or cupboard to put between the bread — cheese, tuna, PB&J — because I’m usually too lazy to wash all the components in order to make a salad.

CHILDHOOD OBSESSIONS: Cartwheels on the lawn, The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, playing my 45 rpm collection, drawing and painting, stickball, bike riding, The Beatles.

FAMILY MEMORABILIA: I have what Catholics called a “relic.” It was a gift from my maternal grandfather, given to me when I was very small. Sorry for the blurry photo — but look what’s inside the circle on the right panel. A tiny remnant of cloth supposedly touched by St. Francis of Assisi. I’ve treasured this since I was little, partly because of how cool it is, and partly because of how much I loved my grandfather, who died when I was 14. Interestingly, I didn’t receive it from my (Catholic-turned atheist) Italian grandfather. I received it from my German grandfather.

FAVORITE PLACE TO VACATION: Grand Canyon; Rockport, Maine; Florence, Italy; the coast of Oregon. If I ever get to England and Paris, I’m sure they’ll make the list.

FAVORITE NEW GADGET: Not brand new, but the newest gadget: my Kuhn Rikon garlic press. Its the bomb.

FANTASY CAREER: That’s easy: a musician. Playing my fiddle in some kind of band. Alternatively, learning to play the viola de gamba as well as the glorious virtuoso, Vittorio Ghielmi (this is a fantasy, remember.)

He’s on the left.

BEST FASHION ADVICE: It’s all in the footware, as I once told my sister. If you’ve got on a pair of great looking shoes, the rest of your outfit seems to pull together.

FAVORITE TV SHOW: It used to be Nurse Jackie (but we no longer have Showtime.) Before that, it was In Treatment (but we no longer have HBO.) I do like The Office (we broke down and bought an indoor rabbit ears antenna — it’s so great and retro-looking.) Truth be told, I bought it so I could watch The Hurt Locker win all the Oscars last night (and Jeff Bridges win his) and watch the Steve and Alec hosting.

BEST RECENT ACQUISITION: A silver sequined throw pillow, a birthday gift from my friend, R.

FAVORITE ITEM IN THE HOUSE: The iPod player in the kitchen. Makes the time spent in there fly by.

WHAT I’D BUY WITH $20:A buffet lunch for two at the Jackson House, my favorite indian restaurant in the neighborhood.

EVENING ROUTINE: Cook some dinner, wash dishes, make tea, ingest something sweet, read or watch a movie.

ALWAYS IN FRIDGE: garlic, pine nuts, avocado, lemon, tortillas, wedge of locatelli romano, organic eggs.

ALWAYS IN CUPBOARD: angel hair pasta, good olive oil, black beans, taco chips, San Marzano peeled whole tomatoes.

OBJECT THAT SPEAKS TO ME: The vintage Gumby sitting on my desk.

HOBBY: Playing Irish tunes and old time music on my fiddle.

TYPECAST: I’m good at taking charge and solving problems for others, but when it comes to myself, I tend to procrastinate.

MOTTO: Don’t give up.

Nine Years Later

July 30, 2009


July 24th was the nine-year anniversary of my father’s death.

Where did the time go?

The photo above (I’m on the left, my younger sister is on the right) was taken, possibly by my mother, at the beach in Coney Island, Brooklyn:


Some of our best times as kids were spent at the beach.

My dad was one of the few senior citizens who, when visiting the casinos in Atlantic City, brought along his swim trunks. He liked to take a restorative dip in the gray waters of the Atlantic before heading back home to Long Island. Beached hypodermic needles and used condoms notwithstanding, he swore by the magical healing properties he’d attributed to the sea.

One of his favorite poems was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Maybe that’s part of the reason he revered salt water. On any given hot summer’s day during my childhood, or if he was particularly thirsty, he might spontaneously recite a few lines from it (which, long ago, he had memorized in grade school):

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We struck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Those were the salad days for our family. Days of reciting poetry, of weekends at the beach, dancing in the kitchen or committing our imagination to a good book. Both of my parents were big readers back then. A few years after this picture was taken, I would also share in their passion.

Perhaps, to guide us through the troubled times that would eventually overtake our family, the bedtime stories he told us each night changed from tales of chocolate soda fountains and enchanted forests to poetry recitations. Invictus (Henley) was one of his favorite poems. These last two lines have stayed with me all my life:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In raising us, he did his best with what he had to work with, which wasn’t a lot. His own father was a brute. So, for that, I thank him.

Right before he died, he was diligently at work, emailing Italy and Canada and copying us kids, as he cobbled together his family tree. He never was able to finish it. Death would claim him rapidly and unexpectedly, in just three months’ time.

While wading through the things he left behind, I came across an essay he had written in his forties, around the time he’d returned to school to get his bachelors degree. He had saved the essay for thirty years.

It’s a wonderful glimpse into the past, particularly, as it relates to the Italian immigrant experience in Brooklyn, N.Y. For me, it’s another piece to the puzzle that was my father.

The Old Neighborhood

by Frank Ambrico


When I think of the old neighborhood, I feel as though I were raised in Italy.

Most of the people in our neighborhood were Italian either by birth of descent. When you heard two people speaking to each other, it was almost always in Italian. As a child, it was a wonder to me that they could understand each other’s rapid conversation. The dialects were so different. As I grew older, however, I too learned to understand most dialects, Northern Italian and Sicilian being the most difficult to learn. The other dialects that were spoken by most of the other neighbors were only slight variations form the Neapolitan my parents spoke.

The music that was heard in our neighborhood, as would be expected, was Italian, too. Radios were always turned to stations VOV, WLIB or WEVD. Tulio Carmanarde, Nino Martino and Carol Butti were the favorite singers.

In the summer, all the religious societies held “feasts” in honor of their patron saint. There, you would find all kinds of favorite foods sold at stands where they were cooked or baked.

The “feast” that was held in honor of Saint Rocco seemed to be everyone’s favorite. This celebration always included a grease pole. This pole was as tall and round as a lamppost. At the top of the pole was a crosspiece loaded with fine foods and a ten-dollar bill. The pole was then covered with a thick layer of grease. Whoever could reach the top would take all that was there. Long lines of young boys would form to get a chance to climb the pole, some, as two-man teams, some as singles using a rope with a slipknot. This sport would go on for hours attracting hundreds of people.

There were many summer evenings that I enjoyed in a neighbor’s front yard singing Italian folksongs or just listening to the conversation of the adults. The singing would usually begin when some of the musicians from our block brought their instruments over and played a few tunes. All of the would-be “Caruso’s” would immediately join in and so the sing-along began.

There never was a shortage of singers; the problem was to get some of them to stop singing. Absolute quiet and undivided attention was expected when someone performed individually, even if he was unpopular. The custom was to show enthusiastic applause, and a spokesman would beg the performer to honor the group with another song even if the first one was terrible. Sometimes when the music went on past midnight and the children were in their homes asleep, the celebration would take on a quieter air.

At this point, the enthusiasm for music would taper off and the neighborhood comedians would take center stage. An Italian, it seems, cannot tell a joke the way an American does, with just a few lines. A three-line American joke becomes no less than a fifteen-minute production. The gestures and pantomime intermingled with the story make for an incredibly funny performance.

The comedy would eventually give way to the more serious or sentimental talk by the old folks about Italy or their youth. Occasionally, I was able to escape my mother’s eye and sit there with my eyelids at half-mast trying to fight off sleep so that I could listen to the stories the old folks would tell. They always enchanted us youngsters.

Whenever I happen to overhear a familiar Italian dialect or detect an aroma of Italian cooking, I can’t help but think of the old neighborhood.

Part 14: Good Things Come in Small Packages

June 29, 2009
I'm telling ya. It ain't gonna fit.

I’m tellin’ ya. It ain’t gonna fit.

The Bonneville was a pain in the butt to park. It was like trying to fit an ocean liner into a dingy slip. A single space wasn’t big enough to hold it, and I often found myself fielding sarcastic asides from other drivers in the lot.

Don't hornswaggle me, you scallywag!

Don’t hornswaggle me, you scallywag!

But, seriously, until I regained title to my Justy, I believed was stuck with it.

My resigned acceptance rapidly turned to indignation, however, when the transmission abruptly stopped shifting into “reverse.”

This was a major problem. The world (or, at least, my navel-gazing little world) could not operate without “reverse.”

For instance, WWBD (what would a belly dancer do) without “reverse”?

So I dumped it. Bonne-voyage, I intoned — all the way to the demolition yard.

Oh my, Mr. Bonneville, look how you’ve changed!



With the Bonneville out of my life, my luck began to change. My divorce had been finalized, and, once again, the Justy was mine!

I had found a day job in a law firm and was teaching college two nights a week, which left no time for cruising the online personals. On weekends, I was busy making art for a solo exhibition I had scheduled for the fall.

“We have art so we shall not die of reality,” as Nietzsche once said. He knew.

It took a couple of years for me to relax my defenses and return to the personal ads. This time, though, I placed my own ad. Doing so gave me the (perhaps, false) illusion of control. I didn’t want to be wasting precious time trying to measure up to some psycho freak


who collected empty beer bottles and lived with his mother (N.B.: it was the early 90s — nobody even uploaded photos back then). Besides, I had my own neuroses to manage.

Anyway, it was during this particular online excursion that I would meet JC, my current husband. The problem was, when his email appeared in my inbox, I’d assumed he lived in New York. The reality was, he lived 3,000 miles away.

If our nascent acquaintanceship was to go anywhere, one of us would definitely have to move — meaning me, since he had two kids and all I had was the Justy.

“A change of scenery might be good for her,” or so goes a line from a favorite movie of mine, Crossing Delancey:



What I Was Reading: Thinking Out Loud (Quindlen), Girl Interrupted (Kaysen), Stones for Ibarra (Doerr), The Bluest Eye (Morrison), Revolution From Within (Steinem), Simple Passion (Ernaux), Moon Palace (Auster), The Invention of Solitude (Auster), The Drama of the Gift Child (Miller), Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Suzuki), The Tao of Physics (Capra), Synchronicity (Jung), Elvis Rising – Stories on The King (Misc. Writers), Heat and Dust (Jhabvala), A Natural History of the Senses (Ackerman), Intoxicated by My Illness (Broyard), Kafka Was The Rage (Broyard).

Unlucky Part 13: The Bonneville

June 25, 2009

“Just when I thought I was out — they pull me back in.”

I was beginning to feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III. Just when I thought  I was done driving rat trap oil burners — I was in the market for another one. This time, I would score a 1970 Pontiac Bonneville (a.k.a. “the boat”).

The Backstory

First, the short list of  why we (okay, me) make colossal relationship mistakes:

  1. Being single and living alone for seven years.
  2. One too many date-less New Year’s Eves.
  3. The deluge of pity from friends and family who want to fix you up.
  4. Dating a man who doesn’t have a Green Card.
  5. Celebrating holidays with your dog.
  6. The Personal Ads.
  7. Rose-Colored Glasses.
  8. Black Moods.
  9. Love.
  10. Sex  (“If there were no process of aging, if time and its passing were not built into the very code of life, reproduction would be unnecessary and sexuality would not exist. That sexuality is a species leap over death has always been clear; it is one of the truths which precede philosophy…The force of sexuality is forever unfinished, it’s never completed. Or, rather, it finishes only to re-begin, as if for the first time.” – so writes the brilliant John Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos).

What Happened: The Reader’s Digest Version

Getting into an explosively transformative relationship (ETR) — in which you rapidly fold under the weight of his intentions and marry him (and, not only that, register your car under his name after he convinces you it’s a money-saver) — is a much simpler process (Justice of the Peace; I do, I do) than getting out of that ETR (Order of Protection, NYPD, Lawyers, Loss of Property and Dignity).

And, if you are what you drive (as I’ve proposed in an earlier post), then the pair of 1970 Bonnevilles pictured below aptly reflects my dismal emotional descent of 1992:



My temporarily estranged Subaru Justy — the only tangible vestige of my life as I once knew it — could not be legally mine again until my soon-to-be ex signed over the registration to me — which he would do if, and only if, I promised not to dun him for the semester’s tuition at Pratt that he’d charged to my Visa card.

I know, I know. Idiot. Learning experience. Bad Karma. Should have known better.

That said, I was in immediate need of a temporary set of wheels to get me to my teaching job at a local university.

art_reproduction_studioMy Haven

Enter: Signore Automotive. For fifty dollars, my father hooked me up with a 1970 puke brown Bonneville, which had been sitting idle for years in the yard of a former co-worker.

It was huge, ugly, rusted, falling apart, and smelling of mildew. But the Bonneville got me to and from work — even if it did look like an overcooked pop-tart:


I really missed my Justy and couldn’t wait until we were:

What I Was Reading (My Refuge): Possession (Byatt), You Just Don’t Understand (Tannen), And the Sea Will Tell (Bugliosi), Jazz (Morrison), The Firm (Grisham), Damage (Hart), Object Lessons (Quinlen), Fire in the Belly (Keen), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kundera), Backlash (Faludi), Presumed Innocent (Turow), Waiting to Exhale (McMillan), The Happy Isles of Oceania (Theroux), The Woman Warrior (Kingston), The Secret History (Tartt), Care of the Soul (Moore), Bridges of Madison County (Okay, I was curious — and actually liked it) (Waller).

Part 10: Rear-Ended

June 3, 2009


My (temporary) new hometown: Huntington, Long Island (oooh, aaah).

Well, I filed for divorce — and then fled Jackson Heights for the sanctity of the suburbs, taking the Dodge Colt and its monthly payments with me.

One of the biggest changes was to my weekly commute. I went from walking five city blocks to driving thirty-miles, each way, to and from work.

The first one-third of my commute was the stuff of fantasies. Every morning at 7:30 a.m., I’d pass through the tranquil village of Cold Spring Harbor:


But that last two-thirds — beginning with the merge onto the Long Island Expressway  — was the ugh part, and looked like this:

LIE sm


For better or worse (where have I heard that before?), I vowed to stick it out. Because at night, I was attending school full-time, and during the day, working full-time. I could hardly find a moment to breath, let alone, find the energy to move again.

On top of all that, my boss had transferred me to a satellite dialysis unit that would soon open up in the So. Ozone Park section of Queens. It might as well have been Siberia.

Oh, the transfer wasn’t personal. It was just business. Right.

Yet, it was fitting, given my current mood, to be working in a place whose main objective was to drain the blood out of 90 percent of the people who passed through its doors.

My office — in fact, the entire building — lacked windows. For eight hours a day, I’d sit all by my lonesome bathed in a florescent glow, typing, answering phones, paying bills, and listening to the hum of the kidney machines.

The building was located in a 1980s, big-radio kind of ‘hood, and there was always something going on.

Which made me a little nervous about parking my car on the street.

For instance, my second day on the job, in broad daylight, in front of our building, I saw a kid whacking the hell out of a pay phone with a golf club — trying to get the money out.

About a month prior to opening for business, a greasy barbarian thug in filthy blue Dickies rang the bell. Warily, I buzzed him in.

“Can I help you?” I said, addressing the pocked-marked, scowling mug staring back at me.

“Say hello to your new sanitation company,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Um, but I need to get two more estimates before we can sign a contract with anyone,” I said, parroting my absentee boss.

“No problem, doll. I’ll take care of it,” he said, with a wink. “Have a nice day.”


There was nothing I could do. Challenging him would be like saying to John Gotti: “Your mother wears Army boots.”

One afternoon not long after that, the head nurse, upon returning from lunch, stopped by my office.

“Uh, I think something happened to your car,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe it got hit,” she said.

I left my desk and ran outside. Maybe it got hit?

It had gone from this:


rotten tooth-smaller

to this.

The entire rear end was ripped off, as if it’d been hit by a truck — or ravaged by dental caries.

One of the techs drove me to the local police precinct so I could file a report. When I explained to a detective what had happened, he listened with a blank expression on his face. Then, he mimed playing the violin.

The most pathetic part of all was that the car still worked. Which meant I had to drive it like that — jaggedly open-air in the back, like a sideways convertible — all the way to Huntington.

You’d better believe that the other drivers on the Expressway — especially, teenagers in cars — thought it was all pretty damn hilarious.

State Farm Insurance provided me with a rental car while the Colt was being repaired. By the time June rolled around, the Colt was looking brand new, and I was about to graduate with a bachelors degree in Business Administration.

Buoyed by a sense of accomplishment, I was never more ready to get out of that blood bank.

Then, one afternoon, as I was sneakily typing a short story on my IBM Selectric, the telephone in my office started ringing.

When I picked it up, the person on the other end was about to make me a life-changing offer I couldn’t refuse.

What I Was Reading: Lake Wobegon Days (Keillor), The Accidental Tourist (Tyler), Smart Women, Foolish Choices (Cowan & Kinder), The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood), Loving Each Other (Buscaglia), The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (Sacks), The Good Mother (Miller), The Garden of Eden (Hemmingway), Regrets Only (Quinn), The Mosquito Coast (Theroux).