Sunday, June 29, 2014

Clean Living


A professional cleaner scrubbed my house yesterday. It’s so clean I want to freeze-dry it to prevent cat fur, dust, and me from messing it up. I’m tempted to check into a hotel until my house sells so it always looks “move-in ready.”

This morning, rather than fix myself eggs, toast and coffee, I ate breakfast out so the egg smell wouldn't linger for the 1 pm showing. My car is starting to look like a Hoarder’s episode because I am stowing stuff that usually gets shucked onto tables and counters.

Last night, after Carl the cleaner left, I was so inspired by the pristine condition of my house I straightened closets, thus nearly filling a trash bag with dried up hand lotion bottles and half empty shampoos I forgot I had.

Rather than fold the sheets that are in the dryer, thus filling up the now tidy hall closet, I left them in there, hence leaving wet towels in the washer until I come home later. Normally the clumps of grass my mower leaves doesn't bother me, but today I raked the yard to remove the clods of grass.

I’m even sleeping differently. Since I now make my bed every day, I tucked the top sheet into the bottom of the bed when I changed the sheets last night. I like my bedding loose because I roll around a lot at night, and I want my bed clothes to move with me. But it’s easier to stage a bed if all the blankets and sheets are secured. Now I sleep like a mummy, which could explain the weird dreams. Like the one I had right before I woke up this morning where I gave Hilary Clinton the finger. In the dream I meant it as a joke, but she was not amused. Obviously I haven't established enough of a personal bond with Mrs. Clinton to make inappropriate gestures, even in jest.

I hid my favorite pillow in the closet because it doesn’t lie flat enough on the bed. It’s one of those side sleeper pillows with a dip in the center. I placed a decoy under the one of the shams. After making the bed, I also hid the ocean.

I don’t know about you, but I need white noise in order to sleep, so I sleep next to the ocean every night, except this one is from the coast of Radio Shack.

Most of the crap cluttering my dresser (deodorant, jewelry trees, and hand lotion) is stashed inside the drawers, along with the stack of books that usually forms a precarious tower on my night stand.

I didn't spray my hair this morning since Carl successfully made my unfortunate choice of white grout on my bathroom tile sparkle like new. My hair never looks great anyway, so forgoing spray won’t make a difference. I scan the floors for stray cat fur clumps and place those in the trash. I empty all the small cans into kitchen trash can and change the bag. I’ve become my own hotel maid.

Now would be a good time to invite people over, but I don't anyone in my house to mess it up. Most of my friends are like me; people who put our feet up and relax in our homes.

So here I am, exiled to Starbucks until a t least 2 o’clock as strangers open cabinets and track footprints on my clean floors. Like Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping up Appearances, I hope they “don't brush against my walls!”Happy Writing.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Interstitial Life



My living room is now painted white, with non-offensive pictures on the walls. (Prior to painting my once terra cotta walls several nudes I had painted in a figure drawing workshop graced the walls.) The family photos are stashed in a box, random other personal stuff stowed in closets, and I now make my bed daily. I’m a guest in my own home, but soon it won’t be my mine anymore. The For Sale sign went up a few days ago, and there is a young man in my house scrubbing it from top to bottom as I sit in Starbucks and write.

I am selling this house in Ohio, with more than 1100 sq feet of living space and a quarter acre yard to move into a tiny, 1 bedroom condo in Seattle. Both properties are in the same pricing range; the three bedroom ranch with attached garage is going for 129,900, the condo is 90,000. My new home will come with an outdoor parking space, and a small patio. But I do not rue downsizing. How much do we really need to survive? 638 square feet is tight, but I regard it as a personal challenge to fit my necessities inside the new space. (Luckily there is an Ikea in Seattle.)

If you read my previous blog post, you would know that the two negatives of living in Seattle will be traffic leaving my friends behind. The traffic I can handle. I listen to books on CD to keep me from road rage. But my other con of leaving my friends weighs so much more. It almost supersedes all the pros about living in Seattle. Almost.

I recently saw this Buddha quote: “In the end only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

A month ago I retired form a career I mostly loved. The last two years were tough because I was beginning to suspect my position had lost relevance, and this was confirmed by who they hired to replace me. I realize now my work did not matter to them. It stung for a day or so, but my new mantra is, “Not my circus, no longer my monkeys.”

I live gently with occasional moments of bombast and unpredictability. In one of those Facebook tests that asks What Kind of Novel Are you? I am an adventure. So yes, I live a gentle adventure. I’m not starting wars and leading protests movements, but I've been known to take impromptu trips to parts of the world. And now hey I’m ripping off the Band-Aid of my staid life to move across the country with two cats and half of what I now own.

Paring down possessions is the easy part of letting go: some of what I own is not meant to be with me forever. The hard part of paring down is leaving the cherished people in my life. Many of them are meant for me. They would not be my friends otherwise. I’ll miss writing time with Cindy S and Cindy R. They provide good company, and I am able to channel creative vibes from them even as we sit across the table ignoring one another.

I will miss Olive Garden and Starbucks dates with Cindy R, and sharing a room when we go to writing conferences. We share a love of reading and literature, and a similar disdain for schlock and shallow books. I will miss our conversations about irreverent topics, such as yesterday when she told me about an article she read about how porn stars prepare their bodies for anal scenes.

I will miss Amanda and Dennis, who had a red wedding on 06/06/06 (we all survived it, though). After visiting them today, instead of waving, we gave each other the finger.

There is a litany of other friends who I will miss. Too many to list here, but they know who they are.

The hardest person for me to leave is Elizabeth, sister of my heart, my chosen family. We’ve been the best of friends for nearly twenty years. We share writing, secrets, and family. I know her daughter better than my own nieces and nephew. We have been through moments of great joy and searing depths, and take care of one another’s cats when one of us goes out of town. When my beloved kitty Lynx died she was there for the backyard funeral where she recited a Pablo Neruda poem and we tossed his ashes in the woods behind my home. She will weep alongside me when Henry, my nineteen year old tabby cat, finally goes.

When I had surgery on my foot, she and our friend Amanda were there in the waiting room. This past Christmas Elizabeth came to my rescue when a pipe burst and flooded my basement. She brought over the shop-vac and helped me toss ruined things in the trash.

Every time I get a rejection letter (which is often) and doubt my ability as a writer, she assures me I’m better than I think I am. Actually we do this for one another. Every writer I knows feels like a fraud, and criticism and rejection is part of the process. It takes nerve to put yourself out there.

Recently Elizabeth healed some wounds when I remarked that my years as a school librarian didn't matter.  “Your work did matter. I saw your interaction with kids when they came to the library.” She often conducted writing workshops at my school for kids in grades 6-12. “I know what being a librarian entails, and I couldn't have done it.”

I regret Elizabeth won’t have access to me as a writing partner. All of us need that one person who shares your values and beliefs, and “gets” you. My family and most of my friends don’t mind that I write, but their eyes cross and their faces take on an expression like how I react when sometimes tries to explain football. I am hoping she can develop a writing bond with the two Cindys.

Elizabeth admitted she wanted to, “selfishly talk you out of moving, but this is the right thing for you.” Our community is intellectually isolating. I’m moving to a culturally rich community . We don’t even have a bookstore, so I hate leaving her behind in desolation, as if I am moving toward something, but she will remain in exile. But then, there are many wonderful people here, and potential for rich friendships. Perhaps without me as a distraction, she will find someone more interesting than my sorry self.

Happy Writing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clueless in Seattle



I came here nearly three weeks ago house sit for relatives while they travel in Germany and Austria. I came with the best of intentions: work on my novel in progress, read several books. I pictured myself like Hemingway, sans the cigarette and hangover, tapping away furiously at my cousin's dining room table, hammering out a nearly complete draft of my latest mediocre American novel. They don't have cable, so what could distract me?
(play doom music here)
They have Netflix.

Instead of being creative, or even useful, I've been binge watching Arrested Development and Louie, and when I ran out of episodes, started on Portlandia. (I watched a few episodes of Mad. Men, but it was like watching my parents generation devolve, and I don't Ike being reminded of the overt sexism of mid century office politics.

Here is what else I have been doing:

I drink a lot of coffee. Hey, it's Seattle. I think I know why this is such a coffee addicted city. It is nearly the end of June and it is 52 degrees outside. Coffee is a necessity to stay warm. Coffee is also needed to keep one awake. In between rare, gloriously sunny days, the skies vary in tone from sidewalk to slate gray.

I am house/ pet sitting, so I'm not totally useless. One of their three cats has bonded with me, and she sleeps with me, follows me around the house and even accompanies me partially on my daily walk. A second cat, Indy has been living up to his name; very independent. And the third cat, Negro (pronounced nay-gro) only approaches when hes so hungry he will risk tipping past this foreign human. The first night, as I sat on the couch to binge watch Arrested Development season 1, the black cat approached, laid a paw on my thigh and studied my face, as if to say, wait, you're not Jena. He dashed off, and has been a phantom other than to dine and dash.

Jena has a lovely garden, and I have been tending it and even added a few plants to it.

Im trying to keep the house clean. The housekeeper came the first week I was here, but she wont be back until after I leave.
Im also taking out the trash. So what? Everyone does that. In Seattle, trash day is an ordeal. *See notes on recycling Nazis for further explanation.

I went to the movies. Here's what a small world it is; one of my friends from high school, more than forty years ago, has been living in Seattle for twenty-five years. Her house is exactly twenty blocks south of my cousin's. Like most of us nowadays, we found one another on Facebook. The first time we met up, we walked the three miles around Green Lake. A few nights later she asked me to see The Lunchbox, a lovely independent film. See it.

My dearest friend Elizabeth has a friend here who I have met up with for lunch a couple of times. Elizabeth calls us her two favorite people in the world. Cat and I bonded right away, and we ended up spending the day together shopping, having coffee, and browsing Sky Nursery. I bought Jena another plant. Cat and I are now friends, too.

One morning I put on my bus pants (Big Bang Theory fans will understand the reference) and rode down to Pike Market to walk around in the rain. I discovered Left bank Books, bought an old copy of a book that beckoned me from the shelves. a thin volume called Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. I recalled the author's name from something I read about Czech lit. The book is underlined with notes in the margins (my favorite type of book; proof someone else engaged with its text) and a bargain at $5. The woman at the counter remarked, "Thats my all time favorite book."

One cannot visit or live in Seattle without stumbling across bookstores. This is part of the reason I am moving here. Each store I ventured into displayed subtle anti-amazon signs. At Third. Place Books, a sign promised 20% off and free delivery on pre-orders of Robert Galbraiths, (aka J. K. Rowling) latest Hachette title The Silkworm.

Each day I walk 1-3 miles, occasionally accompanied by the cat for the first few yards. The distance was dependent on weather and my right knee, which I sort of blew out on the flight here, and allergies. I'm kind of allergic to everything in the air here, so I blow my nose a lot. If I run out of tissues on a stroll, the walk is curtailed.

I met my brother and his wife for lunch in Centralia, which is a halfway point between Portland and Seattle, where they forced me to buy shoes at the Nike outlet. Okay, not forced, but their daughter-in-laws 30% employee discount and the extra 20% sale enticed me to purchase a $100 pair for thirty bucks.

I've looked at properties. Housing is expensive here, so my standard of living will alter from a. Three bedroom house with an attached garage and large yard to a one bedroom condo half the square footage.

I drank coffee. Oh, I mentioned that already. Ive only had two cups so far today.
I baked cookies and banana oat bread. My cousin Bob, Jenas father, believes buying in bulk saves you money, and shortly before Jena and Scott left for Europe, he bought them fifty pounds of oats from Bobs Red Mill. Guess what I eat for breakfast every morning?

I took the bus to Archie McPhee, a store where absolutely nothing is necessary. But maybe it is, because the store is filled with ridiculous items like a switch blade comb and rubber octopus appendages. I bought Shakespearean Insult Bandages.

Every day I drive Jenas pickup truck and get lost, thus finding my way around. I know most of you rely on GPS devices to navigate new places, but I prefer the old fashioned way of getting lost and digging my way back home.

Here's what I love about Seattle so far:

Bookstores. Theyre everywhere

Thus, a lot of writers live here.
People read for no reason. On the bus the other day coming back from Archie McPhees, I overhead a conversation between two young men about poet Charles Bukowski. We were not near a university.

Except maybe we were. There are several universities and college scattered throughout the city.

Community gardens abound. Near my cousin's house is a lot reserved for city gardeners. It's open for public browsing, but not picking. One shriveled mess of a garden had a sign posted Please water my garden while I am out of town. It was apparent this person had either been away for awhile, or nobody else had seen the sign. I fetched a watering can from someone else's garden plot, filled it, and drenched the thirsty patch of land. I was tempted to pick the ripe strawberries, but remembered this was not my garden.

In cafés and coffee houses, friends and strangers share tables, writing, conversing.

The city is socially and environmentally conscious.
*Some may consider Seattleites recycling Nazis, and it IS often confusing to figure out what's trash, whats compostable and whats recyclable. In Ohio we toss it all out. (Lately there has been a movement to recycle pop bottles and paper, but Ohio has yet to start charging for plastic bags or providing refunds on glass and plastic.) Here, one has to think about each item discarded.

People dress for comfort, not high fashion. Yes, I will admit, I have worn socks with sandals. A friend of mine recently sent me photographic proof. In Ohio, and most parts of the world, that attire is regarded with looks of derision. In Seattle? Normal.

Nobody has a tan. My ghostly skin looks normal here.
  
Close proximity to family who live in California, Oregon and Washington, but not so close any of them will drop over at all hours.

Jazz music. Instead of country music indigenous to where I currently live, cafes and bookshops play jazz or blues soundtracks.

No town is perfect, however. Heres what I don't like:
Traffic. Listening to a book on CD keeps me from having road rage. I always have several handy in case I finish one.

Cost of living. I will be living in less than half the space of my current home for the same amount of money. Today I bought a book called The Cheap Bastard's Guide to Seattle. Since I am one. Retirement income, this may just come in handy.

Most of my friends dont live here. This will be the hardest part of moving. (That, and driving two cats across the country in the back seat of a Honda Civic.) I have many treasured friends back in Ohio, relationships that have been tendered for years, so Ill be lonely for awhile once I hit the highway. Yes, I have blood relatives here, but friends are the chosen family.

Overall my list of likes out-measures the dislikes, and Seattle feels like the place I need to live. It feels like home.

Happy Writing.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mr. Dog Bites on June 10





Amidst the cacophony of derivative, dystopian YA fiction emerges a unique and original tale in When Mr. Dog Bites, a forthcoming YA novel by Brian Conaghan. The hero of the tale is sixteen year-old Dylan Mint, a boy who attends Drumhill, or as he calls it, the ‘school for spazzies.’ His best friend, Amir suffers from mild Asperger’s and a stutter, and because he is Pakistani, is often a bully target. Dylan himself has Tourette’s, and his outbursts often get him into trouble. At the outset of the story Dylan believes he has only months to live after he overhears a conversation between his mother and a doctor, when the doc says,” life as he knows it will end in March.” Dylan begins a quest of “Cool things to do before I cack it,” which include having sex with a girl named Michele Malloy, finding a new best friend for Amir, and helping get his dad back from the war. Given these herculean tasks, Dylan’s odyssey is often funny, and ultimately transformative.

Dylan’s voice is engaging, and the diction and interior dialogue are inventive and reminiscent of Kerouac, such as “I was better off taking the hind arms off a brick wall”, [the teacher] “sometimes … treated us like a mad shower of window lickers,” [his mom’s eyes] “were like a butter knife to my heart,” and “I want to Usain Bolt out of here.” A large chunk of the book is in dialogue, and while I found most of it engaging, I missed Dylan’s interior voice.  Conaghan skillfully creates a likable, realistic character in Dylan without forcing the reader to feel sorry for him and his situation.

As an adult, and a secondary school librarian/teacher of many years, the profanity did not bother me, but this book may have a hard time finding shelf space in school libraries, which is unfortunate.  The words Dylan yells are nothing kids don’t hear in the hallways any given day, and all kids need to live inside the head of a character whose thought patterns may differ, yet still has the same human desires of love and belonging. Besides, part of Tourette’s includes involuntary eruptions of swear words. If Congahan, who acknowledges he too has Tourette’s, had sanitized Dylan’s tics and outbursts, he would lose credibility as a writer. This book can do much to clarify Tourette’s as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night did for Autism. YA fans of John Green, David Levithan and Kody Keplinger will enjoy When Mr. Dog Bites.



Happy Reading.

Thursday, June 5, 2014



One of the marks of a good novel is its ability to make the reader wonder if the story is true.  The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman contains enough historical accuracy and detail to make me believe it. Protagonist Lillian Dunkle, nee Malka Trynovsky, a child of a hustler for a father and am embittered mother, arrives with her family from Russia to live in squalor in the lower east side. Her father runs off shortly after their arrival, and Malka suffers a crippling injury after being hit by an ice cream vendor. Abandoned by her mother, Malka faces being sent to an orphanage, but the Italian ice cream vendor, Salvatore Dinello, brings her to live with his family, where she takes the name Lillian Dinello. The Dinellos use her as a laborer for their business, her limp causes her to be bullied, and her looks do not turn the heads of possible suitors. Until she meets fellow immigrant Albert Dunkle, for whom she is hired to transcribe letters.

Like Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, Lillian does not play the pity party, yet the reader wishes people treated young Lillian better. But the abuse and betrayals she suffers only foster Lillian’s tenacity, allowing Lillian and her hapless husband to become ice cream emperors in the highly competitive world of confections. Over the years Lillian morphs into a cross between Leona Helmsley and Joan Rivers, and in business and her personal life Lillian is often ruthless and conniving, yet the reader still roots for her. Her relationships with her Adonis handsome husband, her pot smoking grandson Jason, and her purse-sized dog reveal Lillian’s soft spots, and by the time Lillian’s empire collapses around her, the reader wishes for the best possible outcome.

Told in first person, Lillian’s voice drives The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street with frankness and humor, provides the reader with insight into the ice cream business, entertainment industry and lifestyles of the rich and famous. This would make a good book club book, so set your calendar for June 10, 2014 to get your copy.