Marred for life.

I am using the last of my precious winter break Metro time to do some pleasure reading.  Having sated myself on crime fiction, I got Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan from the library (which I thoroughly enjoyed – highly recommended to people who like YA, adventure, steampunk, alternate history, or breathing) and ripped through it in about two days.

Waiting in my pile was a book on writing my wise mother handed to me during her last visit, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  I’m pretty sure she refrained from saying “You’ll love this,” and I think we may have discovered another way around my reflexive filter.  Just hand the thing to me without a deadline for completion.  I’ll happily get to it in my own sweet time.

I have had this book (along with “Writing Down the Bones”) recommended to me at length, and often enthusiastically, which is probably why I hadn’t gotten to either of them before now.*  Predictably, I am loving it.**

As much as I am loving Lamott’s book, one of the charms of getting to read it in the way I did is the scattering of a few tiny post-it notes my mother tucked among the pages.  These notes have cryptic remarks jotted on them which I understand well due to our shared history but might well be written in Urdu for all the sense they would make to a stranger.

Lamott’s book is especially good in one way because it offers you interstitial assignments – they’re not listed as such, but if the reader decided to take them that way, it is very possible to pull literal instructions from every chapter.  In the early going, there is a section on writing about school lunches to break a mental logjam.  Lamott is right when she says that this topic is fertile ground for stories and descriptions.  She herself writes a few humorous paragraphs about the “code” of lunches – what was acceptable and what labeled you as “other” in the eyes of your classmates.  I recognized exactly what she meant, even if the specifics were different when I was growing up.

My lunches, I am afraid, were never up to code.  Mom made lunches that a 40-year-old foodie would swoon over: homemade multigrain bread, real cold cuts (no bologna in my mother’s kitchen), and often bean sprouts.  These were thick, hearty, character-building sandwiches in every sense of the word.  Once, a classmate snatched a tangle of sprouts out of my sandwich, screamed, and flung them away from her as if they were alive.  They stuck to a window high over our heads and remained there for the entire school year, closely resembling the desiccated corpse of a spider.

The other thing I remember about my school lunches were the notes.  Mom’s missives, often illustrated with quirky doodles, were like a quick squeeze of the shoulder or a warm smile.  I remember them as full of love and humor and topical information like, “Christmas Tree decorating tonight!” or “5 more days until vacation.”  Mom’s handwriting somehow manages to be both loopy and strong, so finding this note tucked into the pages of Lamott’s book was like something out of a time capsule:

“Sprouts!  Marred for life.”

I laughed like an idiot on the Metro and didn’t care who noticed.

*See above re: “You’ll love this”
**I only said I have a reflexive reaction to over-enthusiastic recommendations.  I didn’t say it was smart.

I don’t miss it, but there were some funny stories

One of the interesting thing about going back to school in your 40’s is you get stirred out of your usual age strata.  As a result, I’m hanging around with a few more people in the active dating phase of life than has been usual for me, and my eyes are seeing the world slightly differently as a result.  I see a cute young man on the Metro – tall, lanky, warm brown eyes and facial hair, and I think, “Oh – he looks like X’s type.”  Having my impression confirmed later, I was reminded of an instance years ago when I had my own offer to have a married lady wingman.

I lived for a time with Marie and her husband The Italian out in California after I took the bar exam, but before I knew if I had passed.  Marie and I were out grocery shopping, and she mentioned that she had heard grocery stores were good pick-up places.  We joked about this for a bit, since I hadn’t had a date in months, and Marie said, “Well, you point out one you like and I’ll hit him with the grocery cart for you.”

And a cute young man at the end of the aisle looked up at us and grinned.

And Marie and I did that girly thing where we laughed and collapsed into one another as we fled the scene, embarrassed.

But now I know I would absolutely knock “accidentally” into a potential suitor for X if she wanted me to.  I wouldn’t want to go back to dating for anything, but acting in a supporting role for someone else’s drama?  Potentially fun stuff.

Cleanup in aisle 5…

Weekends around here aren’t complete without a typical, American-style visit to the grocery store to stock up on the things we need for the week.  This morning, after a breakfast at a Cajun joint in Bethesda, we stopped at a grocery store outside our usual orbit to do a quick shop.

John was at the deli counter and I was sort of spacing out when I suddenly recognized the body language of a woman who was saying something to John: she was pretty clearly in the early stages of trying to chat him up.  At about the moment I realized this, she happened to look over at me.  Since I have one of those faces that when at rest communicates something akin to severe disapproval, she was a bit taken aback.

I wandered over about 30 seconds later, since I was intrigued.  The woman had a small daughter.  What’s going on here?  Ah – no wedding ring.  John, by the way, wears one.

However, this didn’t stop her from continually throwing herself in John’s way as we continued around the store.  Had I had the foresight, I would have visited the snack aisle for popcorn, because her efforts and John’s obliviousness was grand guignol.  When we finally reached the checkout and I mentioned the woman’s determined efforts in John’s direction, he said, “Oh – is that why she kept getting in my way?”

What a man I have. I could have told this woman what it took to get John to realize I was interested in him all those years ago. It took more than some flirtatious body language, I can tell you.

The episode also reminded me of the last time I wrote about John’s babe-magnetude. The original version of the following ran on November 8, 2004:
I live in a house full of male creatures. My husband: John Smith, International Terrorist, MacIntosh (aka Mac, Toshie, Dogface, Fuzzy, etc.), Simon, and Dash. Simon and Dash are stay-at-home types, enjoying (we hope) the lazy, safe existence we have foisted upon them. The rest of us venture out into the world to suffer its slings and arrows. Or, in the case of MacIntosh, to enjoy the love and adulation that is your rightful due when you are fuzzy and cute and have fur that a guitarist in an 80’s hair band would give his eye teeth for.

When John and I first moved to Maryland, we lived in a temporary apartment and got Mac after we had lived there a scant few weeks. Mac was a babe magnet from the beginning, all lollopy paws, big brown eyes, and snubnose curiosity. Walks around our temporary apartment tended to be extended enterprises, with Mac’s fan club stopping us to chat, pet, and play. John and I have spent the last two and a half years knowing our place: we are the roadies, there to serve. Mac takes all the attention with a blasé attitude – he has always been a babe magnet and he knows no other way to be.

My husband is also a babe magnet of a specific variety. For those of you who like your men flashy and trendy, John is not for you (well, he’s not for you anyway – he’s for me, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves). For those of us who like quiet capability, thoughtful intelligence and good sense, and a certain wild-card sense of humor (not to mention, as I lapse into the New England vernacular, wicked cute big brown eyes), John is terribly appealing.

But we have been together for a long time – about five years in total, and while our familiarity does not breed contempt, it does breed comfort. So I was surprised and amused yesterday as we made a stop into Hudson Trail Outfitters and I suddenly found myself to be invisible.

Being on the brink of leaving the store because we couldn’t find a mechanic in the bike section, a young female employee offered to help us find someone.

I should rephrase: this Siren of the Bohemian Outdoors offered to help John find someone. Depositing some clothing on a rack, she deplored her clumsiness – veering precipitously close to a giggle, and flashing John a sideways glance.

I stood behind him, realization of my sudden invisibility starting to dawn, amusement starting to spread. John replied with a somewhat sharp joke, and she flashed him another glance, saying in an admiring voice (and I kid not), “You are direct, aren’t you?” It was all I could do not to start giggling myself.

The best part of the joke is that when I batted my eyes at John later and teased him for being such a babe magnet, he had no idea what I was talking about. Either that, or he’s even smarter than I thought he was.

Mom thinks we should be able to see the bend from our rear-view mirror

….because we’re that far around it.  This is based on me telling her that John and I made up new words to the Harry Belafonte classic this weekend:



–daylight come and me want fried bread–


–daylight come and me want fried bread–

Hey mister dunkin-man, fry me up a do-nut.

–daylight come and me want fried bread–

–with glaze!–


Several years ago, we brought my brother Brian and his then-boyfriend Matt to Linden Vineyard .  It’s in a lovely, bucolic spot, and Matt, a bit of a city boy, spied a large, white ruminant lying on a hill as we drove past.

"Is that a cow or a goat?" he asked.

My brother turned and calmly replied, "It’s a walrus, Matthew."

For some reason, this struck all of us as incredibly funny.  And all of this is simply backstory to the video below.  This one’s for you, Bri.

Moments of grace

My new job represents a conscious, directed, major career shift.  It also has a new and exciting 1.5 hour commute, mostly executed on the DC Metro.  Believe it or not (and if you don’t, that’s okay – many of my closest friends are having a hard time with this concept, too), this is kind of a good thing.

First of all, I basically have two hours of dedicated reading time to do my homework for grad school every day.  I have a deal with myself: when homework is done, then I can do novel-reading or knitting or whatever else seems like a good idea.

Second of all, I really do think public transportation is a good thing.  No – a Good Thing.  And DC’s Metro is cleaner and more reliable than a lot of the other systems I’ve used in the past.

Lastly, there are these funny little moments of grace in a Metro commute.  I was engrossed in my book on Thursday morning, but had the presence of mind to look up when the train came above ground to go over the Potomac.  The Washington and Jefferson monuments were ghostly in the early morning light, and the grey-blue sky with its Morse Code of neon pink clouds made me blink with wonder.  A doo-wop a capella group serenaded me as I scurried to the escalators on my way home this evening.  The guy who hands out the free Express newspaper at the Rockville station every morning should be given a medal for his unflagging energy and good cheer.

I had a Metro commute when I first moved to the DC area over ten years ago.  I loved it then – it gave me a sense of place.  Having experience with the tight-jawed, hard edges of the New York and Boston systems, I was charmed by unexpected courtesies as well as the small and very common instances where people gave way for one another (when the train stops in DC, people waiting on the platform very consciously congregate to either side of the doors of the train – and they wait until everyone who is getting off has done so before boarding.  This sounds logical, but I can think of a lot of public transport systems around the world where this courtesy is not observed).  I treasured the moments when the train driver’s personality came through – the earnest, stentorian tones of one who said, “And thank YOU for riding Metro,” or the  high-pitched whimsy of another who said, “Thank you mister train driver,” in joking response to his own service message.  These were people who were unafraid to let you know that they were individuals conducting other individuals, not fettered by the mistaken idea that they needed to become robotic in their duty.

So in returning to the Metro every morning and evening, I almost feel like I’m coming home.  And I like it.

She’s BACK!

my mom, I mean. And boy, do I love to read her voice again (even though we talk on the phone several times a week – you can only revisit those conversations in your mind – you can’t go back and re-read them and find new and wonderful things, because memories tend to fade.  Writing lasts).

My mother and I are both terrified of snakes.  It’s an atavistic, irrational, overpowering thing.  I remember one time in a drama scene study class, a classmate brought her friend’s pet boa (a wee thing, really) in to play the part of Cleopatra’s asp in her scene.  As she was being critiqued, another classmate played with the critter, letting it crawl around him.  He was sitting several seats away from me, and I tried to stay where I was by sheer force of will and logic.

It’s feet away from you.

It is harmless.

You have nothing to fear.

And suddenly, my mental monologue was interrupted, and I found myself at the other side of the room – as far away from the snake as I could get and not leave the class.  The strength of my will and the force of logic were suddenly swamped by my deep and subconscious need to get away from That Thing.  Okay , said the subconscious, That Thing is dangerous, and if you – Ms. Rational – aren’t going to take care of us, I will. And boing – I was teleported to the other side of the room.

And yet, as much as I fear the things, I don’t hate them.  My being afraid of them isn’t about hate – so I love Mom’s conjuring up a herpetological cocktail party.  I can imagine the snakes, their tails coiled delicately around the stems of wine glasses, giving serious advice to the poor soul who had his leisurely crawl through the grass interrupted rudely by some marauding giant.  And I can imagine that snake’s inner monologue:

It’s feet away from you.

It is harmless.

You have nothing to fear.

And suddenly – he is rearing up and doing his best to imitate one of his dangerous cousins, without even realizing it.  His subconscious takes over, you see.  They do that.

Driving with tears in my eyes

Just go listen to this.  I dare you to listen without feeling hope, without appreciating this man’s gentle dignity, without joy at his accomplishment. 

Go on – I dare you.

“Ted says hi.”

I was sitting in the departures lounge at LaGuardia earlier this week, talking to my mom on my cellphone (quietly, I need not add). Suddenly, I said, “Oh my – there’s Ted Koppel.”

“Really?” Mom asked.


“Well, tell him I said hello,” Mom said flippantly.

Whoever was in charge of the knobs and levers of the Universe that day was feeling a bit puckish, I guess, because I was seated across the aisle from Mr. Koppel. Handling a huge sheaf of newspapers, he dropped a section, and I picked it up and handed it to him. He thanked me with a smile and I said, “You’re welcome. By the way, my mother says hello.”

He gave me that slightly worried, “Oh dear – should I know you?” look.

“Don’t worry – you don’t know her. I was just speaking with her on the phone and mentioned that I saw you and she jokingly said to say hello.”

He smiled and said, “Oh – what’s her name?”


“Well, tell Carole hello from me.”

Nice to know that The Giant Head of Ted Koppel really does have a sense of humor.

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a special princess, born on an autumn island, swirling with leaves of gold, amber, and ruby. Her parents, the king and queen, loved her very much (of course they did – this is that kind of story). They watched over the princess, as all parents do, but their royalty lent them charms to give her extra protection.

The queen sent her tigers to patrol the island. Pad, pad, pad, around they went, leaving clear pawprints in the sand.

The king stirred the water around the island, sending waves lapping to the edge of where the tigers stalked.

The princess also had an aunt who loved her. The aunt knew that one day the princess would grow up and leave this protected island of autumn leaves, with its fierce tigers and rippling water. So the aunt knit her a magic shawl, stitching the special magics of the king and queen into the fabric. A drift of falling leaves was surrounded by the imprint of tiger feet and curling waves.

This shawl would be able to follow the princess out into the wider world, bringing with it the special charms of the king and queen. And whenever the princess saw it, she would remember the sound of the rustling leaves, the padding of tiger feet, and the gentle rush of ocean water.

Christening shawl