Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Rant on Writing by Nancy Grossman-Samuel

Why is it that it takes 6 weeks of hard core dieting and watching everything that goes into my mouth to lose 10 pounds, but less than half that time to find those vacationing pounds and have them comfortably park themselves back on my quickly expanding body?

Why is it that sometimes I have the will power of the titans and other times behave like a voracious non-thinking organism who can eat non-stop from morning till evening.

And why is it I can write for 10 minutes at a stretch relatively easily and as many times as we decide to when I’m with my Peeps in our writing group, but put me alone at my desk with hours to spare and I will do everything but write (well, not everything – mostly eat and play games, though I do sometimes actually accomplish things I need to get done).

It’s amazing how many times I've made deals with myself only to break them. I get up in the morning and tell myself today is the day I will spend an hour writing, but by noon and certainly by 6:00pm, that resolution or decision is toast even though I continually perseverate on it in my head.

Truly, my self-trust level is into the ‘I’d freeze if it were a temperature’ level – and I don’t mean get a little frost bite – I mean full on frozen on impact.

I wonder if the truth is that I really don’t want to write, but if that is true, why do I keep trying to do it or at least keep trying to talk myself into doing it, and why does every psychic I've ever gone to tell me I should be writing?

I love the IDEA of writing. I LOVE the idea. But I don’t love the action, usually, unless I’m on a roll. Truth be told, I really have nothing to say – my life has been relatively boring and mild and I have little in my past to call upon. I don’t have the crazy childhood and life of a Jeannette Walls or the crazy wonderful imagination of a J.K. Rowling. I like to pretend that I do. I wish I did, but I don’t, and it’s frustrating, and I would love to be talented like that. I would love to have ideas just pouring into my head from the great somewhere and out onto my keyboard or paper.

I recently went to a talk at South Coast Rep before going to see their main stage play Rest. I listened with rapt attention and obsessive interest to Michael Roth talk about soundscaping and composing for the play and I heard him say, and this just hit to the core of me – I heard him say that if he could do anything at all, he’d just sit in his room and compose.

God how I wish that were me. How I wish that there was so much alive inside of me that wanted to come out that all I wanted to do was fill up notebook after notebook with ideas and thoughts and characters and situations. I am constantly in awe of bookstores and libraries. They are filled with the results of people whose passion for writing just won’t let up.

I love reading great writing and by great, I am not in the nose in the air camp that says that it has to be Chekhov to be good. It can be Stephen King, or Robert Craise, Fanny Flagg, or Jeannette Walls, or dozens and dozens of other people with a story to tell who tell it with authenticity, passion, and, often, humor.

I love a good story. I would also love to be known for telling a good story and there is a part of me that will never give up hoping that I can turn out a story that makes people laugh or tear up or at least feel something. So, like the Barenaked Ladies say in “Odds Are,”

“So get up, get up
No it’s never gonna let up
So you might as well sing along”

And I will keep writing or thinking about writing, even if it kills me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Forsythes

by Susan Matthewson
            Meg’s father died suddenly in January and ever since Meg had had to go straight home from school every afternoon to be with her grieving mother. Always a shy, reclusive woman, dependent on her husband for everything, Mrs. Quinn became even more reclusive, clinging to Meg and depending on her as she had Mr. Quinn.
I was Meg’s best friend, but Mrs. Quinn seemed now to resent it when I’d drop by. She’d let me in but insisted we stay home, so Meg and I listened to records or played games in her room. Once school was over, the summer days were long and boring cooped up inside. And it was spooky how Mrs. Quinn drifted around the house like a shadow.
                By the end of June, Meg and I were desperate to get out of the house. A devout Catholic who never missed mass, Mrs. Quinn finally let us attend St. Xavier’s annual craft fair one Saturday. We had a great time, joking with our friends and visiting the booths. Excited by our freedom, we decided to create the Forsythes, a lovely family—mother, father, and two kids—who wanted us to babysit for them. If we could convince Meg’s mom, the Forsythes would be our ticket to afternoons riding bikes or swimming at the pool. When we needed to we’d just invent a babysitting job. We schemed all afternoon, working hard to invent a family Mrs. Quinn would approve of.
                In their favor, the Forsythes were Irish Catholics like the Quinns and attended St. Xavier’s. We knew Mrs. Quinn would like that. Also, the Forsythes lived in Park Hill, a neighborhood not far from ours where “rich” people lived in large homes that were much more distinctive than the small brick bungalows on our block. Meg’s mother idolized the rich and famous, spent hours reading movie magazines about Hollywood stars, and Meg said she’d be impressed that the Forsythes lived in Park Hill. Though reluctant at first, Mrs. Quinn finally decided it would benefit Meg to spend time around what she called “quality” people like the Forsythes.
                We babysat for the Forsythe's three or four times a week. To our surprise, Mrs. Quinn became fascinated with them. When we’d return, she’d want to know all about them, how their house was decorated, what Mrs. F wore, how she fixed her hair, what the kids were like. Meg and I actually began to look forward to telling her about the Forsythes because she enjoyed it so. She often sighed and said, “Well, they’re just the perfect family aren’t they?” And, of course, they were perfect because Meg and I had made them up. Over the summer our stories about them became so detailed that we almost began to believe they were as real as Mrs. Quinn thought they were.
                One day in mid-August, we returned from “babysitting” to find Mrs. Quinn waiting for us with a solemn look on her face.
                “Oh, I bet you girls think you’re so smart?  she said. “But I know what you’ve been up to.”
                Meg and I froze, watching our freedom evaporate.
“Don’t lie to me now,” she said. “I know the truth because I’ve just talked to Mrs. Forsythe on the phone.”
                I almost choked on my spit, but Meg, cool and calm, said “Well, now, ma, tell us just exactly what Mrs. Forsythe said. It must be a misunderstanding.”
                Still nervous, but now very curious, we waited impatiently to hear what the imaginary Mrs. Forsythe had said to the very real Mrs. Quinn, confident we could explain everything.  After all, we knew Mrs. Forsythe so much better than Mrs. Quinn did.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Morose Musings of a Manic Mother
by Nancy Grossman-Samuel

What does one do when one sees one’s child sobbing – her face buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving up and down in what are possibly silent, or not so silent sobs?

She’s being observed and probably helped by someone I love dearly, who I totally trust and admire, and so I know she’s in wonderful hands. And I realize that this is the reason I don’t want to be anywhere near my child when she is participating in experiences that will bring forward the things she is harboring inside that bring the pain up and out of her heart.

I realize that whatever this experience is, it is probably a good thing. Maybe even a great thing, but my ‘mother bear‘wants to run in and kill the culprit.

I am also aware that I will probably hold on to this way longer than she will. Like the monk who broke his vow of silence to berate another monk who had carried a woman across a stream. The comment the second monk made – who it is never called out in the story also broke his vow of silence to deal with a cranky monk who could not manage his own stuff – “I put her down on the other shore, you are still carrying her.”

If I don’t let the experience just go, I am still carrying it. I am holding her to a place where she no longer is. So, I literally don’t know what to do. I want to call her and make sure she’s okay. But even if she isn’t, she may be unwilling to speak with me about it, so there is really nothing I can do.

I did leave her a message basically saying ‘I’m here if you need me.’ And truly, that is probably enough.

The problem is: I am trying to ‘figure out’ what is in her heart and mind, and that, I have to keep reminding myself, is impossible. At least without communication, and truly, even with communication I find that one is too often willing to say “I’m fine,” (a bold faced lie) rather than to say what is going on, or even saying ‘I don’t want to talk about it with you,’ which to my ears, would probably be just as bad.

As long as I know she has someone to talk with, it’s fine. I would love it if she could talk freely to me, and she can, sometimes, but then, I remember my relationship with my mother, and I don’t think I ever even once talked to her about anything meaningful. At least my batting average is better - at least I think it is.

So instead, I am writing about it. I am allowing myself to express that my heart broke as hers was releasing. A friend of mine responded to my concern with, “I love it when my son cries – it means things are letting go.” Well, maybe it’s different for daughters, and maybe it isn’t, and I should just rejoice in her releasing, which, as I write it, actually sounds like a great idea. Hell – it’s all just made up anyway – might as well make up something uplifting and positive.

I do appreciate that I have the capacity to move into empathy for the pain of another  – and I guess I am also appreciative that I didn't try to impose myself on her – though part of me wonders, when she was randomly sitting, at least 30 minutes later, on the bottom of the steps that I was about to descend, while her classmates were in the classroom – if I’d sat down next to her and just said – “Hi,” – or just been there to offer a hug instead of nodding at her and running off to the back office where I was headed, what would have happened? I wonder if I was just running away or if I was really giving her space.

I feel foolish not having known what to do in that situation. It seems that it should be a no brainer - that my intuition and heart would guide me, but that is not what happened, or is happening, and so I will just sit with this sadness while attempting to rejoice at the possibilities of what it all means. The truth is, she could be completely over this. It could have been, for her, a door into a profound and deep understanding of something – or it could have just been a necessary release – like the valve on a pot that lets out steam when the pressure is building too high.

What I do know is that without communication, my mind and heart tear themselves up. But I also know that sometimes that is what has to happen because frankly, if I hadn't been there, and had not seen it, it would not even be part of my experience and in the same way – is probably none of my business.

But even more importantly, I know that I love my daughter and that I am more appreciative that she is in my life than she will ever realize until, perhaps, someday, she has a child of her own.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Come walk through my brain with me...bring running shoes.

copyright 2014 Susan Cameron

Haven't we all fantasized about what we'd do if we hit it big in the lottery? There's a nice couple in Missouri, Mr. and Mrs. Hills, who cleared $136.5 million after taxes from Powerball. They took a chunk of the money and built their town a new fire station and playing fields for the kids. How great is that? Having so much money that you could do good deeds with it -- wow.

On a more selfish note, I think it would be fabulous to use my astronomical lottery winnings to have the Cameron Compound built. There'd be a big chunk of land near the water, and little winding flower-lined paths leading to six, seven, maybe a dozen Thomas Kincaid-y looking cottages where my friends could come visit, and have their friends visit too. Everybody could do their own thing and then meet at the gazebo/fire pit overlooking the ocean at sunset for drinks and snacks and genial chat.

Probably the closest thing Orange County has ever had to match my charming, separate-but-communal fantasy is the old Crystal Cove enclave between Newport and Laguna beaches. In retrospect, the place as it was from the 1930s through the 1960s must have seemed like some SoCal fever dream -- a jumbled free-for-all of housing constructed of remnants of ersatz tropical film sets constructed and abandoned in the 1920s; flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the beach after storms; store-bought lumber, and driftwood dragged home by the family dog; all assembled beachside by artists and accountants, stockbrokers and stockboys, all of whom knew somebody who knew somebody who was an actual carpenter willing to help out for laughs and beer.

At some point in the 1930s there was a...trumpeter? bugler?...who'd grab his horn and play Reveille, and the martini flag would be raised, and anyone who wanted to salute it could do so, and stick around for the bonfires and luaus and alcohol-fueled merriment. This was the tradition for decades. I imagine there had to be some turf wars or personality clashes along the way, but the people who grew up in the Cove all seem to have similar wistful memories of how magical it was, and a sense of gratitude that their sandy Brigadoon lasted as long as it did.

Of course, the Cameron Compound could never replicate that experience. We're older and more careful now about alcohol (cirrhosis!), and red meat grilled over a fire (colon and prostate cancers!), and sunburn (skin cancer!), and bonfires (smoke inhalation and lung cancer!) We have collectively decided to live forever, or at least live lives so danger-free and boring that it feels like forever.

Okay, that was tongue-in-cheek, but this is not: Our society has eliminated friendship and socializing because it interferes with work. The average American, male or female, spends more time working than a medieval serf, who got time off for feast days, saints' days, and months of bad weather. The 40-hour work week is a distant misty dream, and living on one partner's income while raising a family is so far in the past that it can't even be seen in the rear-view mirror. And the reward for all this labor? The answer deserves its own paragraph:

Median family income in 2012 fell to $51,017.

Too bad I can't stop this and make every reader ponder that figure, but I'll do the next best thing by piling on more bad news. The Crystal Cove folks got these things called pensions from the workplace when they retired back in the day, so they got pension checks every month as well as Social Security checks.

My old friends who endured working for the City of Detroit so they could reap the reward of a secure retirement (average pension? $19,000 a year; whoopee-skippy), a little pension to be added to the little Social Security checks (average Social Security benefit? $15,228 a year; more whoopee-skippy), which would have added up to $34,228 a year to live on -- but Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and what are the odds the city workers will continue to get the money they were promised, planned for and counted on? I guess they can join the Enron retirees living in their children's garages, or Bethlehem Steel widows living in their children's converted basements, or the elderly victims of Wall Street raiders who hijacked solvent companies, stripped their assets (such as pension funds) and declared them bankrupt, leaving the gobsmacked retirees twisting in a very cold wind.

Other friends work in other industries, of course -- banking, insurance, retail -- and not one of them feels secure, because they are all "of a certain age," as the French say, and are the most vulnerable to layoffs and firing. Most put in 60 to 80 hours a week and are paid for 40, because they're not hourly, they're salary; America is full of salaried chiefs working 80s and no Indians working 40s now. If they are hourly, they can earn bonuses; but only if they meet near-impossible quotas which are raised every three months, or whenever somebody is lucky enough to actually make their quota, and threatened with termination if they can't make the latest, even higher quota. Base pay for such folks is $10 an hour.

It could be worse; the attendants who work at my demented buddy's nursing home make $10 an hour too, and it's shift work, and they have to wipe demented old people's butts all day.

There's no pension at any of these jobs, of course, and most of these people are destined to join the non-federal-taxpaying "taker class" -- you remember Mitt Romney's 47% deadbeat figure, right? Mitt's not a deadbeat, of course, despite the tax breaks his business enjoys, and the 15% federal income tax cap on income earned (millions!) managing a hedge fund. Manage a grocery store, earn the median family income of $51,017, and your tax bracket is 25%.  It pays to be Mittens!

The Mitts of the world sadly shake their heads at those feckless folks who didn't have sense enough to choose a father who was the CEO of American Motors and the governor of Michigan; those profligates who pissed away their $51,107 a year on food, shelter, children's doctor visits and twelve car payments a year to get to work to earn the $51,107. They should have saved some money! Mitt certainly did, because he took the time and effort to build his own business from the ground up! Why couldn't those $20,000-a-year butt-wipers at the old folks' home do it, too?

Where was I? Oh, yes -- my fantasy of what I'd do if I won the lottery. Building the Cameron Compound might turn out to be a good deed rather than selfishness after all. I know a lot of good people -- a lot of good people -- who are going to need a safe place to land when they're old.