In the Wee, Small Hours

When I awake in the wee hours and find that I can’t get back to sleep, I don’t tweet like President-Elect Trump. Instead, I grab my phone off my nightstand and start to draft blog posts.

Now, writing in the middle of the night can yield some interesting results. Perhaps this is because my brain is still in that muddled middle ground between sleep and wakefulness. Reading the notes of my nocturnal ramblings the next day may, at times, leave me a bit puzzled. Now why did I wake up thinking about THAT? It is just as likely that I will end up hitting “Delete” than that my disconnected thoughts will ever make it into a post.

It is probably fortunate that I am easily distracted. I will remember that I need to make a packing list for an upcoming trip and I will start on that. I will take my turn in the ten or twelve Words With Friends games that I usually have going at any given time. I will check the headlines in The New York Times.

All of these pursuits are better than lying in the dark and thinking of my sister, who just moved more than a thousand miles away for a new job and was promptly fired. Or of my twentysomething niece, who has been suffering from anorexia in Boston and is now down to a skeletal 75 pounds. Or of my octogenarian father, whose hand has gone numb and who can no longer lift his other arm without awful pain.

Such thoughts make my own problems seem decidedly small. I remind myself that everything is relative. And I count my blessings. I look forward to tearing up the interstate this week so that we can spend Thanksgiving with as many family members as possible, and celebrate my father’s 83rd birthday to boot. Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, or what we might lose, I thank God for all that we do have.

And I recite what I find to be one of the most comforting Bible passages, the 91st Psalm, and I go back to sleep. After all, I have to get up for work in a few hours.

How to Know When You’re a “Real” Writer

I never cease to be amazed by the well-intentioned misinformation about writers and writing that I read online.  Occasionally, I am amused, but far more often, I just want to scream. What frustrates me most is knowing that some readers are going to believe this crap.  I suppose the bottom line is that one cannot know what it’s like to be a writer until one has experienced it for one’s self.  And, like everything else in life, everyone experiences writing differently.

The following are among the common clichés about writing that tick me off royally:

A “real” writer writes because he or she cannot not write. Don’t be a writer unless you have to. If you can do anything else, do that instead.  This view makes writing seem like a disease, and a painful one at that — a fate worse than death that any sane individual will assiduously avoid.  Anyone who would actually choose to be a writer is seriously loco en la cabeza.  This view is dismissive of those of us who write for the sheer joy of it, not out of some obsessive-compulsive tendency that, if unchecked, may yield to drooling madness.  It makes us seem as if we are all on Xanax.  Geez!  Oh, and by the way, we writers generally do lots of other things in addition to writing.  Heroic things like raising children and running things (companies, soup kitchens, marathons, away).  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer writes as a full-time job. However, writing part-time can be a lovely hobby.  Grrrr!  Hobby, my ass.  A lot of us get up early in the morning to write before work and then burn the midnight oil to write again before we get a few hours of sleep.  Rinse and repeat.  We don’t do this out of compulsion, we do so because we derive pleasure of seeing our black words on a white page and because we believe it’s important work.  Oh, I see, it’s still a lovely hobby because we don’t get paid for it, right?  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer gets paid for his or her work and makes a living at it. So, literary merit is judged solely in terms of dollars, pounds and euros?  A writer is one who writes.  Period.  A 15 year old girl who scribbles poems in the margins of her algebra homework notebook is just as much a writer as Stephen King.  If you think I’m full of it, read this.  It is well known that some of the greatest artists in history toiled in obscurity for years, reaping negligible financial benefits from their work within their lifetimes.  Oh, and by the way, neither William Carlos Williams nor Lewis Carroll was a writer because the former was paid to be a doctor and the latter to be a mathematician.  I do understand that you must pigeonhole me into a classification based on what I do to earn a paycheck because your little pea brain will explode otherwise.  I feel sorry for you.

A “real” writer has been published and has his or her work on a shelf in Barnes & Noble or the public library. Ah, looks as if we’re back to the small minds club again.  Folks in this category are kissin’ cousins of those who believe that microbes don’t exist because they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  Fortunately, there’s a thing called the microscope these days.  Look through that lens and, along with the amoebae, you will see things like blogs, self-published books for sale on Amazon and the contents of my hard drive (which I really ought to back up again considering the extent of my recent drivel, er, output).

A “real” writer is a misunderstood, tortured soul who oozes his or her pain and misery onto the page. You have to love this one.  Yes, and we all wear berets and sit in cafés with our notebooks while we smoke unfiltered French cigarettes and sip from goblets of vin rouge.  I’m not saying I haven’t penned a line or two alongside a latte at Starbucks, but my habitual mode of writing is on my laptop perched precariously on a TV tray or scratched hurriedly onto a lined yellow pad during my lunch break at work.  Believe it or not, not all writers pursue the craft as a means of discount psychotherapy.  At times, of course, writing may serendipitously have such a side effect.  Generally, however, our work is a product of creativity, craftsmanship and lots of practice, not tortured verbal bleeding.  Which brings us to…

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. While I appreciate the lovely rhyme, I believe my fellow writers would agree that the mathematics of this proposition varies wildly among individuals and may be gravely affected by the weather, the fight we had with our kid, the vet bill and what we had for breakfast.  Some days we feel like slaves in the word mines, while on other days, the words flow like water and le mot juste appears unbidden.  Those are the days that we thank God we are writers and know that it’s the most worthwhile endeavor on earth.

To my fellow bloggers: Each of you, every last one, is a writer.  To let anyone tell you otherwise is to diminish yourself unfairly.

Speed Blogging

Several weeks ago, I informed my wife that I would not be participating in NaBloPoMo this year.  Last year, I was able to write daily for an entire month because I was unemployed and didn’t have a lot else to do.  You can only prepare so many job application essays before you drive yourself crazy, and NaBloPoMo seemed like a perfect opportunity to improve my writing skills.  I knew that, if nothing else, it would be a “butt in chair” exercise that would get me into the habit of pounding out something every 24 hours, even if I didn’t particularly feel like it and didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to share with my audience.

As expected, a number of my posts took inanity to a new level and no doubt inspired a good deal of eye rolling among my readers.  Fortunately for me, the month of November always presents some ready-made topics, such as the change in the weather, the family foibles surrounding Thanksgiving and the arrival of the holiday season.  I held forth on the challenges of being a vegan on Turkey Day, waxed nostalgic on the occasion of my father’s eightieth birthday and described the river of emotions that resulted from spending time with my one year old grandniece (and hence, Elmo and Abby Cadabby as well) on a nearly daily basis.  NaBloPoMo was also when I began writing about homelessness in earnest, following my first month of living in the church parsonage and seeing the needy arriving regularly at our door in search of succor and sustenance.

It was a great feeling to proudly paste the NaBloPoMo logo at the end of each post and an even greater feeling when December 1 rolled around and I realized that I had risen to the challenge and succeeded.  I felt amply rewarded when A Map of California was featured in the NaBloPoMo section of WordPress’ Recommended Blogs page for months on end.

This year, of course, is different.  After nearly twelve months of unemployment, I was finally hired by state government in mid-September.  I have been blessed with a job I truly enjoy, one of the best bosses I have ever had and a rather interesting daily commute.  As grateful as I am, it doesn’t leave me much free time for writing.  I’ve been doing my best to post once weekly, but even that can be a stretch sometimes.  So writing every day for a month is, as I related to my wife, out of the question.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted my decision.  One of my favorite things about NaBloPoMo is that it makes me feel a part of something big.  Look at all the other bloggers around the world who are pounding away at their keyboards at the same time that I am!  I want to be a member of that club.

I soon realized that there is only one possible way that, with a little luck, I might be able to pull this off.  The idea I came up with is “speed blogging.”  At work, I have an hour lunch break every day.  Now, an hour isn’t much time to think of a good topic, develop a decent thesis and flesh it out with appropriate arguments and witty examples (while eating a soy cream cheese and olive sandwich and a banana).  But I figure that if I keep my posts short and concentrate on my day-to-day experiences rather than on huge issues that require hours of research, I might be able to push myself through.

And so, faithful readers, please wish me good luck as we embark on this adventure together.

Okay, hour’s up.  I have to get back to work now.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo

NaNoPoblano

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Today I would like to express special thanks to The Art Bag Lady for nominating A Map of California for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award!  I am extremely flattered and humbled by this kind gesture.

The Rules

Acceptance of this nomination requires the following:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to his or her blog.
  • Display the Very Inspiring Blogger Award badge (and these rules) on your blog.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award, and add a comment to each of their blogs, mentioning the nomination.

7 Facts About Myself

  1. I only wear long-sleeved shirts.  I can’t stand the sleeveless/short-sleeved ones.
  2. I have attended three high schools and six colleges; I hold two university degrees.
  3. Growing up, my favorite color was green.  Now, however, my favorite color is orange.
  4. Currently, my favorite food is garlic-flavored hummus with pimento-stuffed green olives, served on toast.  Next week it will be something else.
  5. I have played in 41 officially sanctioned Scrabble tournaments (8 with the Word Games Player Organization and 33 with the National Scrabble Players Association).  WGPO says I am currently in 470th place.  I don’t know my NASPA ranking because my membership dues are not paid up because I have no money because I am unemployed.
  6. I speak French, but not very well.  I know just enough Spanish to get myself in trouble.
  7. I have been working on a memoir of my childhood for years.  It is now about 90% complete.

Blog Nominations

I regret that I am unable to include several very talented bloggers who have gone inactive or whose blogs seem to have disappeared.  Here’s to you The Gratetudenist, A Rich Full Life in Spite of It, Little Bird’s Dad and A Clown on Fire.  I miss you guys.

I hereby nominate the following wonderful bloggers for the well-deserved honor of the Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

  1. Too Many Spiders – The pride of Staten Island!  She has seven children and her eighth is due any time now.  She shops and cooks with finesse to feed all those kids on one income.  She’ll argue philosophy with you and destroy you across a chess board.  She is raising her kids Catholic because her husband is Catholic.  Somewhere deep inside, however, she is Jewish.  Watch out, Bill DeBlasio.  Spider for Mayor!
  2. Movin’ It With Michelle – I don’t cook and I don’t run.  Many days I can barely walk.  So I have nothing but admiration for Michelle.  She is a gourmet cook, she runs marathons, she is raising two daughters and she is a professional histologist!  If you’ve ever wanted to have it all and do it all, Michelle is your role model.
  3. Gotta Find a Home – As readers of A Map of California know, helping the homeless is often on my mind.  Everyone has his or her own take on why people become homeless and how to solve the problem.  Dennis Cardiff, however, shows us the homeless as individuals, allowing each one he befriends to tell his or her unique story in his or her own words.  Riveting!
  4. Rachelmankowitz: The Cricket Pages – Follow this blog for a while and you will find that Rachel’s two furry white poodles, Cricket and Butterfly, have licked and pawed their way into your heart. Even if you’re not a dog person, it’s hard not to get caught up in the stories of the two rescue pups who changed Rachel’s life forever.
  5. Brooklyn Doodle – Mary displays her drawing talent on napkins in cafés all over Brooklyn.  Get to know this teacher and photographer who creates museum-worthy pieces in her spare time.  Grab a cup of tea, relax and enjoy.
  6. ~ L to the Aura ~ – I found Laura’s blog because we are both vegans, but stayed to read her thoughts on building sustainably, making green choices and living a compassionate life.  Her advocacy for women and girls didn’t hurt either.
  7. Dirtnkids – Shannon homeschools four kids, has a bird watching life list and a keyhole garden, and presses her own soybeans to make tofu.  She inspires me with possibilities.
  8. Ox the Punx – Sociologist Alex V. Barnard has opened my eyes to the incredible waste of food here in the United States.  His posts on working in a food bank and dumpster diving will make you think about those who do not know where their next meal is coming from.  I look forward to the publication of his book on freganism.
  9. Raising 5 Kids With Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog – My own problems seem small when I read about what this blogger has been through.  I particularly enjoy the stories about her deaf daughter, such as the one about the PTSD flashback she had at an amusement park and the one about the time she asked her pediatrician to turn her into a boy.
  10. TED Blog – I didn’t know anything about TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks until I ran across this blog a few months ago.  If the marketplace of ideas that is the internet had to be narrowed down to a single location, I think this might be it.  This is a place to obtain inspiration on nearly any conceivable topic, from the world of the future, to comedy to terrorism to education to multiculturalism to the emotional lives of cats and dogs.  If you don’t believe me, check it out.
  11. Violet’s Veg*n e-Comics – I am impressed by this talented author and artist who is dedicated to making learning about food and the ethical treatment of animals fun for children.  Her work is a thing of beauty.
  12. A Napper’s Companion – John Coleman, whom I hear has just published his third book, waxes poetic about everything from world events to breast feeding to travel to the joys of being a parent and grandparent to, well, poetry.  I was shocked to discover that this guy is a Lutheran pastor!  If you check out Erie, Pennsylvania’s finest, tell him Uncle Guac sent you.
  13. Oops, I Said Vagina…Again – This blog is so funny that the author must have already received at least a dozen nominations for this award and certainly doesn’t need another.  Too bad, Vagina, you’re getting one from me!  Will someone get this funny lady on Jimmy Fallon, please?  Or at least the Ellen show or something?  The last time I nominated Vagina for an award, one of my readers emailed me to ask how on earth I could like “that blog” so much.  Such foul language, oh my!  Well, if you don’t like certain four-letter words, stay away.  Otherwise, you’ll have a grand time reveling in this wife and mother’s prose and videos.  And you’ll laugh your ass off.
  14. Gustatori – I’ve been living in California for 20 years now, but Tori’s restaurant blog is like a little taste of home.  If it’s worthwhile eating and it’s in New York or Philly, she’s probably been there and done that.  Great photos, too.
  15. Southernblondevegan – New blogger Sarah Argo caught my attention with the luscious photos on her home page.  Those kiwis make me drool!  If you’ve ever wondered whether being a vegan is expensive or how vegans get their protein, iron and calcium or even what would possess anyone to want to adopt a vegan diet, stop by Sarah’s blog and find out what it’s all about.

Thanks again, Art Bag Lady!

Now, with all these nominations going around, would someone please tell me how the hell you actually win one of these awards?

 

How Are You? I Am Fine!

stamp

I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.

We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find:  Advertisements, junk mail and trash.  Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two.  It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.

If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month.  And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full.  Ah, that sounds lovely!  You send me trash?  Back at ya, losers!

My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail.  She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day.  She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us.  She hates federal holidays because… no mail!

I fail to see the point.  Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text.  Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone?  You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox?  Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.

Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch.  I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.

But before that?  I haven’t a clue.  It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.

Part of the reason for this is technology, of course.  It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails.  Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds?  And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office?  Plus, email is free!  My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp.  See what I mean?

Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters.  Just think of it!  You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen.  And then you have to think of something to say.

Perhaps you do have something to say.  But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!”  Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post.  In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.

Or for any other reason, for that matter.

If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call.  Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook.  My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.

I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter.  Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.

I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common.  I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters.  I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then).  Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe.  But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad.  Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.

When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco.  We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.

In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp.  The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week.  I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut.  Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there.  Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew.  I would routinely begin them with “How are you?  I am fine!”  Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.

My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel.  He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth.  He probably succeeded, too.  Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of.  His tag line was always the same:  “There goes Global Sobel!”  It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.

When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida.  We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail.  I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery.  And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments.  Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it.  She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail!  Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested.  I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep.  I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book.  The poor woman tried!

Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State.  Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom.  Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.

Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools.  My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior.  When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!”  When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad.  “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.

Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed.  After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa.  As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.

And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.

My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor.  She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her.  When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?

You can count on it, my dear.

 

The Meaning of Blogging

Sad events tend to make me turn introspective.

More introspective than I already am, that is.

We grieve, and we try to make sense of the senseless.  The questions start to pile up:  Did this have to happen?  Could this happen to me?  Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn from this?

When others suffer misfortune, we are called upon to comfort, to be there to listen.  We’re supposed to keep ourselves out of it.  After all, it’s about them, not about us.

Except that it is about us.  It’s about our relationship with the ones suffering the loss.  And it’s about how what happened causes us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Misfortune ridicules the faux importance of the minutiae of our everyday lives and tends to help us obtain a clearer idea of where we’ve been and where we’re going.  For once, we get to ignore the trees and see the whole forest.  What’s the meaning of it all?

Here in the blogosphere, we enjoy opportunities to share both laughter and tears with fellow writers whom we have come to know and love.  Indeed, it is this sense of community more than anything else that has kept me reading and writing on WordPress.com.

I have yet to meet any of my bloggy friends in person.  And yet I feel that I know them better than some people I have known offline for years.  Sure, the anonymity and distance between the writer and the reader of online blogs makes it easier to divulge details of our personal lives that might be difficult to discuss with someone who we had to look in the eye.  This draws us closer to our fellow bloggers than we would ever likely become in person.

Most of us long for deep, abiding connections with others, connections that we often miss due to societal taboos as well as the personal and cultural roadblocks that all of us erect on the highway that is our lives.  “Don’t talk to strangers” is one of the first rules we learn as children.  It’s just too dangerous.  Others will hurt you if you let them.  Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve or it’ll just be broken.  I think of my elderly parents, who have learned to use the internet as a tool, but still try to keep it at arm’s length.  To them, it’s not “real,” just letters and words on a screen.  People are fakers who can pretend to be anything.

I get it that we can’t throw caution to the winds.  There will always be “bad” people online just as there are offline.  Those with malicious intent or a desire to misrepresent themselves can certainly use the internet as a means of doing so.  But that doesn’t give us license to dismiss the entire medium as duplicitous or illusory.  To me, the bloggers I follow have become family.

And so today I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite bloggers has deleted his blog.  Simply picked up his marbles and went home.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I clicked on his goodbye post and received the message “(Blog name) is no longer available.  The authors have deleted this site.”

Some of you may know to whom I refer.  He was a popular blogger whose work helped to give me a sense of what our electronic community is all about and what sorts of things are possible on here.  In the early days of my blog, I paid close attention to those of his posts that referred to the hazards of blogging and how difficult it can be to strike a balance between one’s public and private personae.

As I started out saying, this sad event (like any loss) makes me introspective.  When a popular blogger who has been working at this for a hell of a lot longer than I have makes a decision to simply vanish, I feel compelled to take a step back and ask myself what exactly I’m trying to accomplish here.  For that manner, what does any blog hope to achieve?

We blog for many different reasons.  Blogs may be a method of doing business, a gallery for displaying photographs, a travelogue, a forum for political debate, a poetry slam, a cooking school.  Or an intimate journal.

But all of these reasons come down to one lowest common denominator:  We want to share a little piece of ourselves.  And no, we don’t want to talk to the wall.  We want to be heard and we want feedback.  We go to bed praying for “likes” and wake up with squeals of delight to find we have comments, reblogs, new readers and followers.  We want to start a discussion, an argument, a dialogue, a movement, a revolution.  We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to break out of our little worlds.  We want to make a meaningful connection with others.

My WordPress.com Reader brings widely scattered friends into my living room for a chat on a daily basis.  Pull up a chair and have a cup of tea, dear ones.  There’s one mother who has been feeling depressed and another who is dealing with her husband’s infidelity.  There’s the divorced one, the one coping with a sick child, the talented artist, the cancer survivor, the published author.  There’s a French teenager who manages to crack me up in two languages from the other side of the world.  There’s even a cat and a dog that I follow.

All of these and many more have become valued members of my online family.  For, in the end, that’s what we are, isn’t it?  One big, noisy, crazy, delightful, loving, extended family.

And the loss of any member of that family leaves a gaping hole that diminishes us all.

 

Wake Up, Dear, You Were Just Having an American Dream

dream

Shout out today to new bloggers Laura and Bob of The Two Who Wander.  I am so glad I happened to run across their little corner of the blogosphere.  They are recent retirees who have invited us to share this new chapter in their lives and to tag along on their adventures across the USA.

I particularly enjoyed Bob’s post Retired! in which he takes us on a guided tour of his career working first on coin-operated games at a small firm and then for many years at Hughes Aircraft.  Bob tells us that his employer provided “a pension that will provide enough income to help Laura and I survive into old age.”  I can only sigh and gaze wistfully at such things.

In my mind, I travel back to my junior year of high school, when I was one of two students selected to compete in a national writing competition.  The other student was a girl who was a talented musician, a brilliant student and at the top of our class.  I, on the other hand, was a new student who had just moved to the area and somehow impressed the creative writing instructor with a couple of poems.  Perhaps the school thought that this outsider could be the secret weapon who brings home the big one for good old John Jay High.

When the two of us arrived in the classroom at the appointed time, the proctor informed us that we’d have an hour to write anything we wanted on this year’s topic, “the American dream.”  I asked if it was okay to write a poem.  The proctor reiterated that we could write whatever we wanted.

Peering over to the other side of the classroom, I saw the young lady immediately begin to scribble her thoughts, only occasionally looking up for inspiration before lowering her head and continuing.  I, on the other hand, had no clue what to write.  None at all.

I had no idea what the phrase “the American dream” meant.

I writhed uncomfortably like a butterfly mounted on a pin while still alive.

The jig was up.  I would now be exposed as the fraud I really was.  I ended up turning in three or four lines of nonsense and did the best I could to forget about the whole thing.  Now that forty years have elapsed, I think I can fairly state that I have been as unsuccessful in the forgetting part as I was in the writing part.

Later, I found out that “the American dream” is somehow associated with home ownership.

Oh.

Even though I was born in Manhattan, I feel as if I must really be from another country, as home ownership has never meant anything to me.  I’ve always been a renter and plan to continue so to the end of my days.  Perhaps somewhere along the line I fell asleep and had the Swedish dream or the Chinese dream.

I guess I could be like my sister, who owns homes in two different states, but has to rent them out in order to pay for them.  Meanwhile, she is unemployed and living in an extended stay hotel in Reno, where she just had her car broken into and had to have the smashed window replaced.  On her own dime, I might add, as she hasn’t yet met her deductible.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the countless multitudes of my fellow Americans who have become victims of subprime mortgages, who have seen the value of their homes plummet in decomposing neighborhoods, whose home loans have gone “under water,” who have been awarded their marital homes in divorce settlements but can neither keep up the mortgage payments nor sell out, or who have absconded after the foreclosure notice has been affixed to their front doors.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like the many impoverished households in this area in which ten or twelve people are forced to live together and the roof over their heads is earned at the price of having no food in the house.  Is that the American Dream?

I guess I could be like our homeless friend who alternates sleeping in a chair at a friend’s house and rolling up in his sleeping bag outdoors.  One day last week, he came begging for a dollar because he was dying for a cigarette.  Thursday, he came by because he was hungry and we fed him dinner.  The next morning he came by again and we gave him breakfast.  Is that the American Dream?

I suppose I could quit it with the pessimism and look at the multicultural melting pot that we have become as the American dream.  The joy of living in a time and place where I can sing Hebrew songs in a church in which most of the parishioners speak Spanish.  Where I can eat latkes one day and tacos the next.  On that day back in high school, perhaps I should have written about my grandmother traveling by train from Austria to Le Havre in France and boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic in steerage, seasick for weeks, to reach a better life in the United States.  In the insular childhood I enjoyed on the East Coast, I had no idea that there were Mexicans paying their life savings to be ferried across the Arizona border, only to be abandoned and die in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.  Nor did I know about those who actually made it, finding the American Dream working as domestics, field hands and day laborers in California or meat packers in Nebraska in order to send a few dollars back home to the family in Jalisco.

Or perhaps the American dream has evolved into obtaining our fifteen minutes of fame, winning the Power Ball, wearing a chicken costume on American Idol or twerking on the world stage of the VMAs.

No, today I think we have a new American dream, and I thank Bob and Laura for reminding me of this.  The American dream for the twenty-first century is to be able to retire before the age of sixty with a pension that will support us so that we can follow our dreams, American or otherwise, for the rest of our lives.

For myself, however, as for most of us, this is a dream that will forever remain out of reach, a dream that vanishes into thin air the moment we open our eyes.

 

Ten Decembers

Dec

Inspired by the DP Challenge Ghosts of December 23rds Past and particularly by Jeni’s delightful post Nine Decembers on Joy and Woe.

December 1977

No room at the inn.  Transferred colleges and couldn’t get into the dorms, so lived in a tiny hole in a decrepit, single room occupancy hotel in downtown Albany.  Took the bus back and forth to campus, five miles away, even when the temperature was below zero.  Glad to go home for the semester break.  Bundled up and walked a mile to the record to store to buy the double album Barry Manilow Live to bring home with me.  Planned to take Amtrak down to the Hudson Valley, where a friend would pick me up.  Had to take a taxi across the river to the train station in Rensselaer.  Had the hotel bellhop call me a cab and carry out my luggage.  Became frightened when he started to yell at me.  Later realized I was supposed to give him something called a “tip.”

December 1978

Slacking and slouching my way through college.  Finally got into the dorms and hated living with a bunch of creeps. Accidentally bumped into the dorm Christmas tree and knocked it over.  Hated taking political science courses to please my parents, who wanted me to be a lawyer.  Allowed my mother to talk me into taking Constitutional Law.  Hated it with a passion but was afraid to drop it.  Plowed through piles and piles of mimeographed cases, understanding next to nothing.  Final paper was due right before Christmas, but I put it off until it was too late.  Stayed up all night to try to put something together.  Couldn’t.  Wrote a note to the professor explaining that I am a square peg being forced into a round hole.  Walked across campus to the PoliSci office and gave the note to the secretary.  Told her to tell the prof to just fail me and get it over with.  Walked back to the dorm and went to bed.  Went home for winter break the next day.  Shouted “I hate the Constitution!” in front of my parents, earning a tongue-lashing from Mom.

December 1979

My parents had recently won some money in a lawsuit and purchased a Honey motor home.  The thing slept eight, got nine miles to the gallon and drove like a tank.  Rode down to Florida in it with my parents and sisters.  It was my senior year of college and I figured this would be my last chance to do this.  One of my college friends had taken a shine to my sister, and she really liked him.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t Jewish and my mother was having none of it.  Mom and Sis fought and carried on the whole trip.   My sisters and I slept on chaise lounges on my grandparents’ lanai in Florida.  Sis cried all night and my heart ached for her, particularly since it was my stupid friend who caused this mess.

December 1980

After graduating college with a useless liberal arts degree in May, my job prospects were exactly zero.  My mother was working in Rhode Island, so I lived with her and started taking the courses I needed for a teaching credential.  Took summer and fall classes, but Mom quit her job in November and moved back to New York.  I moved into the dorms (where I lit Hanukkah candles but blew them out after about 30 seconds for fear they would set the curtains on fire or set off the smoke alarm), but when the semester was over in December, my parents said they were done with Rhode Island and I should come back to New York and look for a job.  A few days before Christmas, my father arrived to pick me up.  I cried as we drove away.

December 1981

Quit my first job.  Eleven months on the night shift at minimum wage was enough for me.  I had found another job, so I just called in and quit without notice.  It was a weird feeling, half guilt, half liberation.  On Dec. 8, started working at a huge, stinking chemical plant that I will call Carcinogens R Us.  Thought I had won the lottery because I was making union wage, $8.07 per hour.

December 1982

Threw a thirtieth anniversary party for my parents on Christmas Eve.  Tried to keep it a secret, but then learned that they were planning to fly to Florida for Christmas and had to tell them.  Invited distant relatives whom we hadn’t seen in forever.  Most of them came.  Spent a lot of money on catering but had no music.  My girlfriend, who was also Jewish, kept asking me if this was a Christmas party.  Dumbass.

December 1983

In charge of the Christmas party for our section at work.  There were a hundred of us.  Arranged for the food, but there was no money in the budget for music.  Didn’t have any Christmas music because I still lived at home and, well, we’re Jewish.  Went through my collection of vinyl records and made a party tape using the cassette player on my stereo.  Discovered that a lot of people really hate Barry Manilow.  Was mildly embarrassed when my coworkers kept rewinding the tape to play Gloria Estefán singing “Conga” over and over again.

December 1987

Quit my job back in August to go to law school full-time.  Quickly found that I was in over my head.  I had begun exhibiting agoraphobic tendencies a couple of years before and started having full-blown panic attacks as exams approached.  At Christmas, foolishly decided to ride to Florida with my parents again, with yet another girlfriend along for the ride.  We were staying with my grandparents while the girlfriend was staying at her father’s house down there.  My sisters had wisely flown the coop.  Mom hated everyone on my father’s side of the family and hated my girlfriend even more.  She decided to take it out on me.  Endured ten days of listening to Mom scream, yell and curse at me.  Never rode to Florida with them again.

December 1988

My parents drove to Florida by themselves.  I stayed up at law school in Massachusetts.  I was renting a room along with several other law students in a huge house owned by empty-nesters.  They invited me to stay for their family Christmas and I eagerly accepted.  Their four children came home for Christmas with their spouses.  The depth of the pile of gifts around the Christmas tree staggered my imagination.  It took hours to open them all on Christmas Eve.  My landlord’s son-in-law referred to this exercise as “death by presents.”  I just called it awesome.

December 1990

Quit my job as a clerk (Do you see a pattern here?) when I realized the temp-to-hire position was all temp and no hire.  Also because I had failed the bar exam once already and figured I’d better study full-time for a couple of months if I were to have any chance of passing in February.  Also because I was sick and tired of the boss and his secretary imitating my parents by having daily screaming matches with each other.  The first Gulf War got underway in Iraq and I was horrified.    Wrote my first letter to “any soldier.”  Wrote an anti-war poem and had it published in “Yellow Ribbons,” a tiny local mimeographed piece of shit.  Wrote another poem titled “Daddy Hates Chicken.”  My agoraphobia worsened and I tried to stay at home as much as possible.  Of course, “home” was still my parents’ house, where I figured I’d have to live til I was old and gray.  Had multiple fights with my girlfriend (who still lived with her mother) because she didn’t know how to explain to her friends that I wouldn’t go places.  Memorized the causes of action for all the intentional torts and wrote one practice essay after another, lying on the blue carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom.

 

Telling Your Story: Thoughts on NaBloPoMo (Part 2)

my story

Wow!  We are already well past the halfway mark of NaBloPoMo.  I’m so pleased to see that many of you are still hanging in there with me.

One of my kind readers asked me whether I will continue writing daily after NaBloPoMo is over at the end of the month.  I really had to think about that one.

Writing every day is a difficult proposition.  Not only are there a million distractions (all those people and tasks that make demands on our time), but once you sit down at the computer, it can be tough to come up with something interesting to write about.

More than twenty years ago, back in New York, I wrote a weekly column for a tiny community newspaper.  I remember having a hard time coming up with something worth printing every week.  And now here I am writing seven times as often!  It doesn’t seem possible.

If memory serves, much of the time I filled my column with a lot of syrupy nonsense.  One of these days I’ll pull out the boxes and share some of my clippings so you can have a good laugh (or maybe just gag).  I’m telling you, they were bad.  I would write about snow in the winter, about the leaves turning green in the spring, about the beauty of our local river.  On Father’s Day, I wrote a letter of appreciation to my dad; on Mother’s Day, I wrote a poem to my mom.  A seriously corny poem.  Schlock the likes of which you have never seen.  (I’m taking my own advice from last time by “telling on myself.”)

I wrote about stepping in goose poop.  I griped about annoying, noisy video games in restaurants.  I wrote about Murphy Brown and Beavis and Butt-Head.  I poked fun at then vice president Dan Quayle.  I poked fun at Bill Clinton playing sax on Saturday Night Live and never inhaling his puff on that joint.  I wrote about enjoying an egg salad sandwich at a family picnic in the park.

In other words, I wrote about everything and nothing.

What I didn’t yet know was that I was preparing for blogging.  This was a few years before the internet really took off; I didn’t have a computer.  When I got an idea, I scribbled notes on scrap paper or on the back of a business card or on a fast food napkin.  When I sat down to write the week’s column, I used a yellow pad and a pen.

I got the bright idea to write a column while I was working as a typesetter in the composing room of the weekly newspaper in which I would eventually be published.  (Scanners and desktop publishing hadn’t really taken off yet.)  After about a year of setting type, I noticed that a columnist from another state was mailing her work to the newspaper (without charge) in the hope of getting published in as many places as possible.  I ended up typesetting those columns.  I remember the first one was about holding a birthday party for one of her kids at a nice restaurant.  Of course, the birthday boy got sick, the other kids started acting out and pandemonium generally prevailed.  In future weeks, she continued in this vein, writing about the foibles of family life.  And as I’d typeset her column each week, I’d think “I can do that!”  Mentally, I’d do a little tap dance like Wayne Cilento playing Mike in A Chorus Line.

And just as Mike eventually got his chance the day his sister refused to go to dance class, I had mine when the columnist informed the newspaper that future columns would be provided by paid subscription only.

Today, we’re fortunate in that we can all easily share our lives and writing talents with the world.  Matt Muellenweg, the entrepreneur who created WordPress, calls this “the democratization of the Web.”

But looking back on my days as a columnist with a tiny newspaper, I remember that some weeks it seemed next to impossible to come up with anything new to say.  And yes, I must admit that there were occasional weeks when the spot reserved for my column was occupied by filler because I had drawn a blank.  Luckily for me, I had an understanding employer.

So, returning to the question I posed at the start of this post, I don’t know whether I will continue writing daily after December 1.  I had written nearly every day for a month before the beginning of NaBloPoMo, so you could say I had a head start.  But blogging daily consumes all the time I would otherwise spend on other writing projects that I don’t want to languish for too long.  Perhaps I will drop back to publishing every other day.  On the other hand, I am having entirely too much fun doing this and I might just keep plugging merrily along.  It remains to be seen.

For now, however, we still have a couple of weeks to go in NaBloPoMo.  And some days I, like the rest of you, wonder what else I can say that hasn’t already been covered.  Here are just a few ideas that I have been rolling around in my pea brain.  I hope they help to inspire many exciting new posts!

Thanksgiving is next week.

The very nature of Thanksgiving is a gold mine of blogging ideas:  Food, family, giving thanks.

  • Tell us about the earliest Thanksgiving you can remember.  What was it about that particular occasion that causes you to still remember it?
  • Write about your favorite Thanksgiving disaster.  Did the turkey turn out raw?  Was it eaten by the dog like in A Christmas Story?
  • Tell us about the most unusual place you ever ate Thanksgiving dinner or the most unusual guest who ever sat at your Thanksgiving table.
  • Tell us about the aunt/uncle/cousin who always prepared a dish for Thanksgiving that no one wanted to eat, and how you avoided hurting that person’s feelings.
  • Tell us about a family fight that occurred at Thanksgiving and how it was resolved.
  • Describe your fantasy Thanksgiving dinner.  Who would be sitting around the table and what dishes would be served?
  • In your family, do you have a tradition of enumerating specific blessings for which you give thanks?  Do you offer a special prayer?  Tell us all about it.
  • The first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving this year.  The way the lunar calendar falls, this will not happen again for more than 5,000 years.  Any special plans for celebrating both holidays together?  There’s actually a thanksgivukah.com website!

Christmas is (gulp) 34 days away!

  • So, how’s the Christmas shopping coming along?  Do you buy a little all year long or are you a last-minute rusher?  Fess up!
  • Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go?  Or staying close to home this year?
  • What’s the plan for kids and grandkids who have grown into adulthood?  Do you still buy all of them gifts?
  • What’s for dinner?  Do you do a turkey for Thanksgiving and a ham for Christmas?  Does serving turkey for Christmas seem like a reprise of Thanksgiving?  Or do you go for ethnic specialties or something else?  (My wife’s family has always been big on tamales.)
  • Ever think of going out to dinner for Christmas instead of cooking?  Why not?
  • Tell us about the relative who everyone can count on to tell the same story every Christmas, as if you’ve never heard it before.
  • Do you sometimes wish you could skip Christmas entirely, like the couple tried to do in Christmas with the Kranks?  What would you do instead?
  • Any tips for saving money on Christmas?  Is it necessary to break the bank every year?
  • What’s your favorite holiday cookie or candy recipe?  Please share!  (And don’t forget to tell us all about why it’s your fave.)
  • Natural tree or artificial?  Do you use a set of heirloom ornaments every year or do you buy new ones?
  • What’s your favorite Christmas song?  Does it bring back a specific memory?  Do tell!
  • Is there a particular movie that you have to see every Christmas?  I can understand Miracle on 34th Street.  But just how did ET and Home Alone become holiday movies?

Got some holiday blogging inspiration now?  Get typing!  I can’t wait to read your new posts.

Catch you on the blogroll!

Oh, and happy holidays. 🙂

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

The Versatile Blogger

versatile

I am amazed and delighted to have been the recipient of an embarrassment of riches this week. 

First, WordPress did me the honor of including A Map of California on the Recommended Blogs page (under the NaBloPoMo category).

As if that weren’t enough, a very kind and funny gentleman by the name of Matt has nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  You should visit him over at Must Be This Tall to Ride.

In case you haven’t had the honor of meeting Matt, let me tell you a little about him.  His wife cheated on him with some rich guy and then divorced Matt.  The court ordered joint custody of their five year old son, and poor Matt has been spending months crying in his beer over missing his boy during the 50% of the time that he is not around.  Matt has also been crying over not get any, um, er, well… you know.  For quite some time.  By now, his beer must be as salty as his language is.  And this guy posts nearly every day, so you don’t have to wait for his latest installment.  For a good time, er, I mean a good read, head on over there.  Tell him Uncle Guacamole from A Map of California sent you.

Thank you, Matt, for your thoughtfulness and generosity.  You rock ‘n roll, dude!

The rules for the Versatile Blogger Award are as follows:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you (well, duh) and link back to his or her blog.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 fellow bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
  • Inform each nominated blogger by placing a comment on his or her blog.
  • List this set of rules and display the Versatile Blogger Award logo.

Seven (and a half) facts about me that you would not know from reading this blog:

  1. I have visited 40 of the 50 United States.  I have lived in five of them.
  2. My favorite color is orange.
  3. I’ve never seen a potato I didn’t like.  Baked, boiled, French fried, hash browned, mashed — I love ‘em all.  I try to eat my spuds every day.
  4. I am crazy about the music of the 1970s. 
  5. I once won a new car in a radio contest.
  6. The last book I read was Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.  This was the first book that I have read entirely on an e-reader.
  7. I have struggled with agoraphobia for years.  I have not yet figured out a way to write about this.  (I think the tears would short out my keyboard.)

7½.  (This is the most important one:) I am married to a wonderful, incredible woman who not only has friends from one end of the nation to the other, but can change a head gasket, cook a gourmet meal, move heavy furniture, help a homeless person and prepare our income taxes, all in the same day.  And then post about it on Facebook.  Can you say blessed?

My Versatile Blogger Award Nominations

  1. Raising 5 Kids with Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog – Read about how this author lost all her money at the casino, what happened when her deaf child caught her smooching with her hubby, or the hazards of driving a 15 passenger van.  Always good for a smile.  And I’m thrilled that Linda introduced me to JJ Heller’s song “Love Me.”
  2. The Gratitudenist – Julie Richie can always find something to be thankful for.  Even when shoe shopping, fighting off her writing demon (he’s named Shoulder Frank) or being unfriended on Facebook by her teenage son.  Oh, and she’s a cancer survivor.  A totally amazing person and an inspiring writer.  My favorite post of Julie’s is Why I Love the Word Shit.
  3. King of States – My only gripe is that Michelle needs to post more frequently.  Her blog is a riot!  As I have a deep-seated relationship with New Jersey that goes way back, I can appreciate her sense of humor.  Anyone who can write an entire blog post about an apple rolling off a windowsill or who will admit to having a dog who steals fried chicken from homeless people is guaranteed to be in my Reader.  Oh, and having a category called Effed-Up Shit doesn’t hurt either.  Gotta love the Garden State!  What exit ya from?
  4. Little Bird’s Dad – Another one who needs to post more often. 
    Not only can this Texas attorney write, but he can draw too!  Whether writing about his son with CP, his stepdaughters, vindictive neighbors or baseball, this very versatile blogger never disappoints.
  5. What Happens to Us – Lately, novelist David Groves has been writing a long series of posts examining his genealogy.  Returning to Kansas, research led him into some dark corners of the soul.  My favorite post from this street magician is his eulogy for his rabbit, Quesadilla.
  6. It’s Fruitcake Weather! – Cookie enthusiast and crazy cat lady May Chau shares her world of being a college student in British Columbia and surviving self hair cuts and meals of instant noodles.
  7. A Morning Grouch – Find out what happened to her great-grandfather’s teeth or read some of the best marriage advice around. This woman has some strange dreams, and she actually admits to them.  My fave:  The 5 Worst Things You Can Say to a Blogger.
  8. Ooops, I Said Vagina… Again – Run-on prose, non-stop griping, cleaning toilets and all the words for which your mother would have washed out your mouth with lye soap.  Her videos crack me up, particularly the one in which she makes her trademarked Reese’s/ Butterfinger salad (10-15-13 post).  Recommended:  YOU are dead to me…
  9. A Rich, Full Life In Spite Of It – One of the most poignant posts I have read about marriage AND one of the best posts I have read about depression. And Rachelle is not afraid to blog about the removal of body hair in, um, a very sensitive area.
  10. Bookmouse – This librarian is an amazing knitter and cook, and has the photos to prove it.  And she doesn’t mind sharing about her heart problems and her husband.
  11. Cats and Chocolate – Liz loves curling up with a book and a nice hot cup of tea as much as I do.  She is deaf, a novelist and a Brit — and she writes about it all.
  12. Color My Palate – I initially thought this was strictly a “foodie” blog.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that “Ms. C” is a delightfully diverse writer who regales us with stories of teaching seventh grade English as well as travel, movies and, yes, writing.
  13. In Case of Fire, Use Stairs – Beth’s ramblings skip from raising a son with spina bifida to the Virgin Mary to the Muppets.  She taught me the wonderful Latin phrase illegitimi non carborundum.  Oh, and she thinks she’s a terrible blogger.  I beg to differ!
  14. Arts, Crafts, Food and Other Things – Normally, I don’t have a great deal of interest in the topics listed in this blog’s title (well, except for food).  Happily, this relatively new blogger writes about a great deal of “other things.”  I guess I just can’t resist a New Jersey blogger, particularly one whose topics include Jane Austen, the Eagles, inspirational Bible verses and water fights with her late Uncle Ted.
  15. Grandma, Uncut – Granny shares whatever is on her mind.  Like the hazards of eye charts, her third grade teacher, her cousin who receives messages directly from Jesus or just the inevitable aches and pains suffered by one who is “too old to censor.”  You think you’re stressed out about your family coming for Thanksgiving?  At least you haven’t found a pile of mouse turds in the corner.

…and honorable mention to Hong Kong’s very own Michael Lai of Retiree Diary, who, unfortunately, does not accept awards.  Check out his beautiful photography of Asian locales.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013