Monday, September 30, 2002

A Monster in the House

“Is there a monster in the house? Is there a baby writer sitting over there on the floor storing up memories of family fights and betrayals for future books? Beware.”

Thus the NY Times begins an article on the Monster in the House, AKA your friendly local writer, as presented by a panel of authors at the New Yorker Festival.

The issue is central: What kinds of loyalty does the writer owe friends and family? What sorts of consideration can a friend or relative reasonably expect when the writer turns shared experiences into prose? How much, if any, neglect, grouchiness, and bad behavior is justified by a writer’s genius and the demands of art? What does the family do when a writer’s work can be interpreted to reflect poorly on the family?

But turn it around for a minute. What does a writer’s family owe the writer? How much do they have a right to demand of time, attention, care, and energy when the writer is struggling to find enough time to create? When does respect for privacy become censorship?

There are plenty of stories of artists and writers who are total bastards, but there are also a lot of us who aren’t nasty enough to make space enough to write in.

These days, I’m trying to write while balancing a job, a family, and the very few community obligations I will accept. (And those are important to me: church, the women’s bookstore.) It’s damned hard, even if I hadn’t been spoiled by having once had all day to write.

I’ve come up with a few solutions — writing in the early morning before work, for example, which lets me devote my freshest energy to the writing and warms me up for the very different kind of writing I do on the job. I’ve also given up almost anything that could be a distraction. I don’t spend time in online forums, which used to be a central source of friendship and support. I don’t watch many movies any more. My cross-stitch and cooking are sorely neglected. I would give up sleep if I could.

I know I haven’t tackled any of these issues in depth, and I need to. I also want to explore the serious question of how to talk after divorce, but that will all have to wait. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to behave with respect toward both the family and the work.
Types of Failure

1. Accident
2. Mistake
3. Weakness
4. Inability
5. Incorrect Method
6. Uselessness
7. Incompatibility
8. Embarrassment
9. Confusion
10. Redundancy
11. Obsolescence
12. Incoherence
13. Unrecognizability
14. Absurdity
15. Invisibility
16. Impermanence
17. Decay
18. Instability
19. Forgettability
20. Tardiness
21. Disappearance
22. Catastrophe
23. Uncertainty
24. Doubt
25. Fear
26. Distractability

This list is courtesy of the Institute of Failure, which is, so far as I know, not affiliated in any way with the Institute of Official Cheer.

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Fire Update

3100 acres
1600 firefighters
11 homes consumed
1 state of emergency
3 more days, probably, until it's contained

Several hints that it started in a meth lab.

If you want to see the kind of country that's burning, here are some photos of the Uvas Canyon Park, which is adjacent to the burning areas. It's not on fire, but it's now closed anyway, as a precaution, or because the air is too smoky.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Chilly Weather

Tonight in Palo Alto I saw a middle-aged professorial gentleman wearing this typical California outfit:
Birkenstock sandals
ankle socks
khaki Bermuda shorts
heavy sheepskin jacket.

It was dark, and the temperature had dropped to all of 65.

As a rule, Californians put on a coat when the temperature drops below 72. However, they continue wearing shorts and sandals even when the thermometer is in the 50s. Don't they have nerves in their knees?

E-mail the UnNatural Historian.
California Burning

Even from forty-odd miles away, we could see the column of smoke rising and spreading as we drove home Monday night. A 200-acre fire. Last night the smoke was a deep bruise across the southern sky. By this morning, the wildfire had spread to 2100 acres. It’s well south of where I live, but I woke this morning with a scratchy throat from the traces of smoke in the air.

It’s the fire season; in this hot weather, and as dry as September always is, fires are an annual threat. In 1991 the great Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire destroyed 1500 acres and killed 25 people. That was more than a fire; given the unusual heat, a 65-mph wind, and the steep, narrow canyons where it started, a single ember from a smaller fire rapidly became a firestorm.

Everybody knows LA is a desert city. But as an Easterner, I never thought of Northern California as particularly dry. Its image is so much greener and softer than the prickly landscapes I think of as desert. I thought of San Francisco as a rainy, cool, foggy city. It is cool and foggy; it is also a semi-arid city that gets only 19.9 inches of rainfall in an average year, most of it concentrated in the winter months of November through February. The moisture from the fogs adds an effective five to ten inches of rainfall to that number, making it as lushly green as many Eastern landscapes.

San Jose gets about the same amount of rainfall as LA: 14.6 inches average in a year. (For the sake of comparison: that’s less than a third of Jackson’s annual 48 inches; sunny Philadelphia averages 40 inches more or less.) Lacking San Francisco’s nourishing fog, San Jose, like LA, is a semi-arid climate, teetering on the verge of desert. You can tell when it’s winter here, because the hills turn green — a profoundly disorienting experience for a lifelong Easterner.

And fires are a natural part of the ecology here. As beautiful as California is, as densely populated as some parts of it, it’s still untamed. We can kill off the grizzly bears and mountain lions, grind the redwoods into toothpicks, but we’re not masters here. The fires and earthquakes and debris flows are California’s reminders that what people build is temporary.

Unfortunately, what people destroy is permanent.
Wisdom from Steve Lopez

Thoughts on the coming war from one of the few people left who has any common sense:

The biggest threat to our security in the new world isn't Saddam's potential to build a nuclear weapon in the next six or seven years. It's some fanatic slipping into this country in the next six or seven minutes, while we're all waving flags and singing hymns. If you were a terrorist who wanted to strike in the U.S., wouldn't you prefer that we were distracted in Iraq?

It's not a stretch to imagine an American future with dirty bombs blowing up our harbors. It's not beyond the pale to imagine suicide bombers at sporting events and nerve gas attacks in subway stations.

And yet there has been precious little discussion about whether an attack on Iraq lowers or raises those risks.

. . . .

If we're going to war to prevent a nuclear holocaust, shouldn't we at least all know how to pronounce it? It ain't nukular, George. Trust me on this.

Steve Lopez, in case you don’t know, is one of the best journalists in the USA. He’s shrewd, funny, and filled with moral outrage.

From 1985 on to the late 1990s, he was an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. As a Bay Area native, he chronicled the shenanigans of Philadelphia politicians, citizens, and the Parking Authority with zeal, passion, and an outrageous sense of humor. His columns are collected in Land of Giants, which is worth buying, if only for the nostalgic look at Philadelphia in the days when City Council had a quorum in jail.

Then there are the stories about the second MOVE crisis — the one in which the city burned down an entire block of Osage Avenue, which led to the deaths of eleven people, including all but one of the children the city was claiming to protect. Steve Lopez, as I recall, had just started writing for the Inquirer a few days earlier. A hell of an introduction to the City of Brotherly Love.

Nevertheless, he developed an affection for the city and even its old-style corrupt ward heelers. This is apparent in his second novel, The Sunday Macaroni Club. He also wrote Third and Indiana, an impassioned novel about the destruction of young lives and old neighborhoods by streetcorner drug culture. Reading it broke my heart.

These days he writes for the LA Times. He’s a good journalist because he’s a stubborn, tough reporter who writes incisively. He’s a great one because after all these years he still cares.

Saturday, September 21, 2002

That's a Spicy Meatball!

Tony came over this afternoon, bearing a chili joke he found online. Being the virtuous person I am, I websearched until I found the original. Bruce Cameron is a professional writer, and I refuse to circulate his work unattributed — even if he didn't originate the line about Sno-Cones that I especially liked.

E-mail the UnNatural Historian.

Friday, September 20, 2002

Fathers and Daughters

Something in yesterday’s Neil Gaiman blog tore at my heart and left me feeling bereft:

I finished reading “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death” to Maddy last night, and tonight Maddy volunteered to read to me instead. We lay on the bed and she read me “Second Grade Gorilla” by Daniel Pinkwater. Which was rather wonderful, until sleep caught up with me, and she stopped reading and tiptoed away.

The image of a loving father who reads to his daughter every night — yes, that’s moving, and it’s one of the things I like about Neil Gaiman: he really seems to be a caring, devoted, observant parent. Since I first came to care about his writing through his blog, I don’t have the graphic-novel image of Gaiman as a dangerous Goth god or leather-jacketed fallen angel. What I saw was someone who wrote horror, who explored the dark, without having to pretend he was a warped reflection of Lovecraft.

(Weird but true: Lovecraft patterned his persona on Poe, who was imitating Lord Byron, who was playing the role of a dramatic villain bred of Milton’s Satan and the Mad Monk of Gothic fiction, but was also considerably different in person than on the page, by all accounts. So a modern-day imitation Lovecraft would be a fourth-string copy.)

But that isn’t what gave me a pang in this. It’s the idea of a daughter feeling safe with her father in her room — even on her bed, next to her. A daughter who feels safe reading to her father. I can’t even imagine it, not for myself. The word father conjures up such horror, loathing, fear, and sorrow in me that I can scarcely summon words for it.

Yet I looked all those years for substitute fathers, ideal images combining what was best in my own father and the qualities I wished for in a parent. There’s a reason Abraham Lincoln became my hero.

In some ways the homicidal clarity of my relationship with my father made things easier for me. I could readily separate Men as a group from Daddy — something that can be much more difficult with an ambivalent relationship. And I found good male role models in books and history. But something this tender, this kind of gentle affection and unthinking trust — that reminds me of how very different things were for me, and that’s bound to hurt.
So What Do You Two Find to Talk About?

What Bill Bryson does for travel, this guy does for romance. That is, he distills the experience into a series of bizarre encounters that leave me drowning in tears of mirth.

Or, to put it succinctly: he's written thousands of very funny words on all the things he fights about with his girlfriend.

Lord, give us peace in our time.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

God Help America

From today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

Profiling charged on 'nightmare' flight
A doctor on Delta Flight 442 was detained by U.S. marshals.
By Thomas Ginsberg
Inquirer Staff Writer

The incident on Delta Flight 442 was scary enough last month: U.S. marshals seized an unruly passenger, then one aimed a pistol at other passengers for a half hour and shouted at them to stay seated.

The event, however, didn't end there. Unknown to most passengers on the Atlanta-to-Philadelphia flight, the marshals upon landing also seized an Indian passenger from first class and silently whisked him away in handcuffs.

Far from being a terror suspect, the second detainee turned out to be a former U.S. Army major and military doctor from Lake Worth, Fla., where he has had a family practice for two decades. Both detainees later were released without charge, and the physician's angry account of his ordeal offers a glimpse at the dark side of America's war on terrorism.

Yesterday, suggesting that the line between security and civil-rights violations is blurring, the physician, Bob Rajcoomar, filed notice in U.S. District Court that he may sue the U.S. government for illegal detention and emotional distress. His wife had been left to wander the Philadelphia airport for three hours during his detention, never told of his whereabouts.

"This is blatant racial profiling," Rajcoomar, a naturalized citizen since 1985, said by telephone from Florida. "They think they can pick up anybody, willy-nilly... . It's not in keeping with traditions of the United States."

David Steigman, a spokesmen for the newly created U.S. Transportation Safety Administration, which oversees the air marshals, gave few details about the detentions or the marshals' actions and declined to discuss the potential lawsuit. Atlanta-based Delta did not comment on the legal action.

Rajcoomar, "to the best of our knowledge, had been observing too closely. When the aircraft landed, the airline declined to press charges" against either man, Steigman said.

Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which filed the lawsuit notice, called the detention a civil-rights violation that should "send a wake-up call to Americans before it's too late... . In our haste to protect ourselves, we are literally turning on each other."

The dramatic hours on Aug. 31 aboard Delta Flight 442 started when a passenger from Philadelphia - described as waiflike and disturbed - caused alarm when he began looking at other passengers' luggage.

Two U.S. air marshals rushed back from their first-class seats to investigate. The marshals were later identified by police as Shawn B. McCullers and Samuel Mumma, assigned to the regional Transportation Safety Administration office in Atlantic City, which declined to discuss the case.

"Air marshals issued a series of warnings to passengers to stay in their seats. The unruly gentleman didn't stay in his seat, so they took action to restrain him," Steigman said.

Rajcoomar, sitting in window seat 1-D, reading a book and sipping a beer, said he knew nothing until the marshals showed up and began pushing the unruly man into seat 1-C, adjacent to his.

Alarmed, Rajcoomar said he stood up and asked to be moved. A flight attendant told him to take one of the first-class seats vacated by the marshals.

"One [marshal] sat on the guy in the first seat; he was groaning, and the more he groaned, the more they twisted the handcuffs," Rajcoomar said.

Then, in coach class, a woman rose to switch seats with her child, who was sitting in an aisle seat, according to Rajcoomar's wife, Dorothy, who was sitting in coach class because the couple could not get seats together.

"That's when they started hollering," Dorothy Rajcoomar said of the marshals. One of them rushed to the divider between the first-class and coach sections and leveled his pistol at the coach-class passengers.

"He took control as if he was a terrorist himself," said Bob Rajcoomar, who was then sitting in a first-class aisle seat directly in front of the marshal. "He says, 'Nobody move, nobody look down the aisle, nobody take pictures or you will go to jail, nobody do anything.' He basically hijacked everybody."

One passenger, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge James Lineberger, said marshals "were yelling at passengers to keep their heads and hands out of the aisle... . I couldn't believe they would do such a thing."

Bob Rajcoomar said he, like every other passenger, was watching the marshal but never spoke to him.

About 30 minutes later, the plane landed and Philadelphia police officers came aboard to help take away the unruly man. Thinking the incident was over, passengers began standing up, Rajcoomar said.

"Then out of nowhere, hell broke loose," Rajcoomar said. "One of these marshals came down to me and said, 'Head down, hands over your head!' They pushed my head down, told me to bend down... . I just couldn't believe it. I was speechless, in shock."

Unseen by his wife 30 rows back, Rajcoomar was whisked off the plane, taken to an airport police station, and locked in a cell he called so filthy "I wouldn't even put my dog in it."

During detention, Rajcoomar said, he was never asked anything except his name, address and Social Security number. He asked why he was being held.

"One of the marshals said something like, 'We didn't like the way you looked,' " Rajcoomar recalled. "They also said something like, 'We didn't like the way you looked at us.' "

Finally, after about three hours, Rajcoomar was released without explanation.

"It was like a nightmare," Rajcoomar said. "The marshals were completely out of control... . If they had pulled the trigger, we'd all be dead. I don't feel safe knowing they're there, not with this kind of behavior."

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Living with a Writer

Want to understand the peaceful security of being involved with a writer? Take a look at this relationship quiz. It's designed for writers and their vic— I mean, their significant others.

This is from Eric Maisel's website . He's a writer and psychologist who specializes in creativity issues. I recently read his book Deep Writing, which is one of the few writing books that seems both insightful and realistic. And it's well-written, which not all writing books are.

Obviously, not all the quiz questions apply to any writer, and the answers certainly don't. I considered posting my answers, including write-in votes, but decided that it was getting too gamy and defensive. The writing was a major issue between Billy and me, so it can be difficult to discuss the difficulties of my writing career without also bringing in the death throes of the marriage.

Just one observation: For years I've said, "I'm a professional. I can write anything, take editorial changes, and do what's needed rather than recording my artistic vision." At work I still have to think that way. But I think it's time to start being an artist again at home.

Last week I dreamed that I was up on a ladder in a vast room like a library, trying to clean a whitewashed ceiling. Underneath (really, above) was a beautiful fresco of gods and angels, dimly seen through the masking pallor.

The vision is there. I just need to restore it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

September 17, 1862

It was the bloodiest day in American history: about 23,100 young men killed, wounded, or missing, as well as four generals. A quarter of the Confederates were killed or wounded. Many of the Union soldiers died fighting on a bridge over a stream that they could easily have forded, if only General Burnsides (or anyone else) had thought to check. By the time the Battle of Antietam ended, a thirty-acre cornfield was a stubblefield so covered with dead and dying soldiers that you could walk from end to end without ever touching the ground. The best book on the battle is titled The Landscape Turned Red—a straightforward description of what happens when that many men die on such a small patch of ground. And the center of the battlefield was a Dunker church whose members were pacifists.

Despite all that bloodshed, the battle was a draw, but it counted as a tactical victory for the North. Lincoln had been waiting for the right moment. A week after Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed only those slaves who were in the Confederacy, but it changed the focus of the war. It signaled the intent to deliver four million human beings from a captivity so bleak and dangerous it can scarcely be imagined.

In considering the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation, let’s not forget the human cost of battle: what it meant to those men to march into beautiful farmland, kill and die, lie out all night suffering with wounds. What it cost their families and friends, their nation that would miss a generation of leaders, thinkers, workers, human beings.

I can’t weigh or judge their actions. I can only grieve for the lost, try to live mindfully, and work to relieve suffering wherever it may come. It’s not enough. It’s never enough.

Photographs of the battlefield, now and immediately after the battle, can be found online. There is also an extraordinary series of paintings by a professional painter who fought there that day.
92 million

· Mexico's total population
· annual new cases of chlamydia in the US
· abortions worldwide every two years
· extra people added each year to the world population
· US and Canadian citizens over 16 who surf the Internet (as of 1999)
· amount in pounds that Internet abuse cost UK business (as of 1999)
· drinkers in the US in 1993 who were not heavy drinkers
· Americans who are functionally illiterate
· Pakistanis who are illiterate
· passengers a year who fly via the 3 NYC airports
· decline in global forest cover, in hectares, that has been estimated to be lost between 1990 and 2100
· people whose lives and homes would be threatened by a 50cm sea level rise
· number of pounds of cheddar cheese annually consumed at Taco Bells around the world
· population of Nigeria
· age in years of the oldest fossil ant known
· acres in the US protected by 511 National Wildlife Refuges
· acres around the world protected by the Nature Conservancy
· new cases filed in state courts in the US in 2000
· mobile workers in the US
· cases of lymphatic filiariasis, a severely disfiguring disease, to be treated by 40 countries this year
· acres of longleaf pine forests that formerly spread from Virginia to Texas (currently only 3 million acres)
· acres of U.S. land that is developed
· acres of grassy rangeland in Texas
· amount in pounds that the charity Oxfam collects per year
· people in Latin America who are without safe drinking water
· tax rebate checks sent to US citizens in 2001
· paper checks written in Singapore, 1999
· estimated damage in dollars of the 1992 Landers earthquake
· record albums by Bon Jovi music sold around the world
· record albums by Garth Brooks sold in the US
· population of pigs in the US
· working women in the European Economic Community
· questions answered by Ask Jeeves in the second quarter of 1999
· gallons of particles of hydrocarbons and other air pollutants from cars and factories washed into the ocean every year
· Americans who live in areas with chronic smog problems
· pounds of material Boeing recycled in 1998
· combined usage of today’s top ten paper users, in tons, ten years ago (current figure is 208 million tons, an increase of 126%)
· days in bed caused by morbid obesity in 1995
· egg production of South Carolina chickens during June 2002
· pages of documents declassified in 1998 by the National Archives
· cell phone users in the US in 2000 (rising at a rate of 1 million per month)
· Christmas cards sent by Australians for Christmas 2000
· American adults who planned to take family vacations in 1995
· in 1993, number of US households that visited casinos
· unsolicited spam e-mails advertising pornographic web sites sent to AOL subscribers by LCGM, using forged headers

In case you're wondering, I needed to jazz up the number 92 million for work this afternoon, so I did a Google search on 92 million. These are a few of the more interesting factoids I found.

My candidate for the perfect spam e-mail subject line.

And no, I do not write spam for a living. Everything I write is opt-in, which means people ask for it. I certainly do not ask for the appalling spam I get on AOL. I delete 95% of it unread, but even the subject lines give me a gloomy view of humanity, not to mention a certain pity for sheep.
Northern Lights

This is a great year for seeing the aurora borealis. I haven't seen any — I'm mostly in at night, and I live fairly far south for them — but I bet my friends and family in upstate Pennsylvania and New York can see them. There are even forecasts available online that predict when the solar storms will produce the most brilliant light shows.

Do check out the links. (They show up in a different text color.) These sites have gorgeous pictures of the northern lights, so if you can't get out to see them, or you're living too far south, you can still have an idea of the glory of these displays.

Monday, September 16, 2002

Yes, Dammit, I Know the Anniversary Is Over

But the grief goes on. The survivors can't confine their sorrow to one day a year. And so, when I ran across this while looking for something else, I decided I'd better post the link to this heartwrenching article about Gettysburg and Shanksville, PA: On Hallowed Ground.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Aromas, California

Driving down to the writers’ conference Friday, I passed a sign for a town called Aromas. That must be the ideal California address. California — woodsy, pungent, spicy — is quite as beautiful to smell as it is to see.

I hear some reader jesting about smog, and God knows it's true in some areas. I can't spend more than a day at a time in the LA basin (such an appropriate name for it), because the air is consistently bad. For some reason, Northern California isn't nearly as smoggy. San Francisco itself has good air, fresh off the Pacific.

But the scents. . . . even in southern California, the very first time I visited there, I loved the way California smelled. Billy and I were in the Angeles National Forest just before it rained, when all the pines and chamise and sagebrush exhaled in the suddenly humid air. Months later, I opened a little bag of postcards and the scent came rushing out, so strong and unexpected I sneezed.

Friday and today, driving along 101, I smelled dozens of separate fragrances, most delightful. Of course, you can smell Gilroy from several miles away: that pungent combination of garlic and fertilizer is unmistakable. In the spring, there is the delicately sweet scent of blooming cherry and peach orchards. The sod farms and hay farms and the hills smell of grass hot in the sun. Sometimes trucks carrying enormous mesh hoppers of onions, garlic, or tomatoes passed me; if you had some bread, you could make a wonderful pizza.

The shrubs in the hills all have their own scents: sage, rosemary, dozens of plants whose names I don't know. The herbal, almost medicinal smells of their intense volatile oils are released in the heat, or the rain, or when the leaves are bruised by the wind. Rosemary is grown here as casually as easterners plant crown vetch or barberries, and there are times when the roadsides are blue with rosemary flowers.

At intervals along the road, there are stands of eucalyptus; even on a dry day, they exude the tingling, vigorous scent that's so much more complex and satisfying than the boiled-down smell of Vicks VapoRub. After a rain, the air in those groves is like a spa. When I lived up in the hills beyond La Honda, I had to drive home through thick belts of eucalyptus, and their fragrance always raised my spirits, energized me. Once I drove through with my window open to the rain. The next morning, a cloud of fragrance rolled out when I opened the truck door.

The scent of the redwoods is my favorite of all: woodsy, deeper and more subtle than cedar, it's an aroma of peace and simplicity and pleasure. When we lived in the hills, Gabriel used to come in with her fur scented with redwood needles.
Dateline: Two Dogs Internet Café in San Luis Obispo

The writers’ conference is over, and I’ve paused on my way home to eat breakfast and log on to the Internet. I have a couple of days’ worth of e-mail to deal with, and I really wanted to post here.

Yes, I did bring my laptop on this trip. But I forgot the power cord—a classically Freudian self-destructive move that shows just how scared I’ve been of writing. I’m not letting that stop me, though. There’s always another way.

I also didn’t bring printouts of any work, but that was a deliberate decision. I didn’t attend the writers’ conference to get a contract, find a new agent, or validate myself through praise and recognition. In some ways I was traveling incognito—not talking about my work or reading it aloud, not showing off my knowledge or trying to gain acknowledgment as a colleague from the presenters. Yes, I did that, deplorable as it is, last time I went to a writers’ conference as an attendee—that was the 1993 RWA convention in beautiful subaqueous St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch was up to its knees in Mississippi, and I bought a small sandbag as a souvenir.

I’m waffling. I could go off here into the tragicomic story of how I always encounter natural disasters when I travel. It’s amusing, and it’s well off the topic. But not today—I want to face this, dammit.

I went to the writers’ conference to remember who I am. To be among people who value what matters to me: the art and craft of writing. (Which sounds redundant, but isn’t.) And to start caring enough again to overcome the fear that’s kept me frozen these long years.

I have a stable home now. I have a computer to write on. I have a supportive partner. I don’t have time, but I can make that—I have to make it somehow. Even an hour a day would make a difference. I just need to build the momentum to carry me into writing every single day.

For years I had what every writer dreams of: hours alone every day, hours of unspoiled time in which to devote myself to the work. Afterwards I could do errands, cook, read, sleep, handle Billy. Writing was my fulltime job. Of course, I paid a price for it, and when the price got too high, I left that marriage and that life. I’ve posted about that already, though, and there’s no point in rehashing the devil’s bargain. I chose my life above my writing, which sounds idiotic; unless I’m alive, I can’t possibly write. And of course it was more complicated than that. But the point is. The point is.

I haven’t written a book in five years—well, five years come November. And I haven’t finished a book of my own in far longer. I‘ve worked on other people’s projects. I’ve been writing ad copy, marketing e-mails, persuasive junk mail. It pays the rent. It gives me a sense of achievement, and at least I’ve been able to write copy for products I believe in. But I miss my own work.

And every tiny chance element of the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference seemed designed to remind me that life is short, and I’d better write today, because tomorrow I might not be breathing.

In his welcome speech, David Congalton, the conference co-director, apologized to returning participants for the lack of guitar music, which had been a tradition. The guitar player dropped dead in March. Heart attack. He was 49. There was an empty chair with his picture propped against the back as a memorial.

And there was more. I don’t have time now to record every detail, but the most touching moment of the conference for me came when Susan Vreeland mentioned the circumstances of her finishing the manuscript of Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She was in the hospital with lymphoma; she’d had a bone-marrow transplant, and it wasn’t clear if she would survive. But she finished the book. She wanted to make sure her writers’ group knew that she had been happy in those last months of her life.

The Lump has been a distraction for me. Not anymore. Now it’s a spur. I am 43. I could have another 60 years, or I could die on the way home. I don’t want to waste the time I have left. I don’t have unbroken days to write any longer. But I can find an hour, two hours. I can do this. I have to.

Friday, September 13, 2002

You Look Like You Could Use a Laugh

I've been meaning to post this link to The Best of Craigslist for a while, but tonight I just had to. It's not just because it's hilarious, though it is. It's because it can make me laugh and think and feel like a human being even when I'm infernally weary (I didn't get home from work until 11PM). is a San Francisco original (now available in a number of other areas around the country). It is a bulletin board with ads for jobs, apartments, ridesharing, romance, furniture, useless junk, performance art, cars, and many other things, as well as online conversations about everything else in life. I found my elderly Mac, a gorgeous antique dining-room table and chairs, my truck, and several other wonderful things on Craigslist. And the Best Of Craigslist winnows out all the ordinary ads for traveling companions or 72-piece Tupperware sets and presents us only with the Ultimate — such as the guy who is looking for a traveling companion back into the past, or the guy who's looking for work (his major qualification is his skill at playing FreeCell on company time).

They're all good, but these are some of the best to start with:

Wisdom on marriage and kids: RE: Almost 35, Unmarried, Depressed
Wickedly funny classification of personal ads: Warm it up Craig
Microsoft error messages in haiku: For Those Who Fear the Window
Really unusual classified ads: horny futon mattress desperate for some hot action - $100; Lil' Unicorn is getting pissed off! (photo) - $1
Ten exciting reasons: It's great to be a cat.
Good sexual advice/personal ad: Foreplay - A Reader's Guide
The Creme de la Creme of that day's personal ads: Ladies, May I Present The Men
A warped and very funny personal ad: 'Modern Executive' seeks conspirator for accounting fraud and dinner.
Wise advice for those who dream of Someplace Else: We all have problems. Minnesota is NOT the solution.

I promise I'll post something I actually wrote at some point in the near future. Plus the Lumpdate. But right now, I'm exhausted. It's been a long, hard week, and I need to get to bed.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Nobel Laureate Pays Tribute to Sept. 11 Dead

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska has written a moving tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

A photograph from Sept. 11

They jumped from the burning stories, down
-- one, two, a few more
higher, lower.
A photograph captured them while they were alive and now preserves them
above ground, toward the ground.
Each still whole
with their own face
and blood well hidden.
There is still time,
for their hair to be tossed,
and for keys and small change
to fall from their pockets. They are still in the realm of the air,
within the places
which have just opened.
There are only two things I can do for them
-- to describe this flight
and not to add a final word.
Portraits of Grief

Death as a Constant Companion

Art: In Memoriam

I was reading Winnicott this morning on art. "Much of the pleasure of the experience of art in one form or another arises from the nearness to unintegration to which the artist's creation may safely lead the audience or viewer. . . . The appreciation of art thus keeps people on a knife-edge, because achievement is so close to painful failure."

Carrying the audience right to the edge of disintegration and bringing them back again — that to me expresses art's significance spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. It explains why I could mourn for Diane through and with Mozart's Requiem, because that music carries the listener right to the edge of destruction but, in its sublime order and meaning, also consoles for the terror and loss it expresses. (I'm saying this very badly, and I said it badly the other day, discussing the Rolling Requiem.)

So here are some ways to consider 9/11. Some artists' eyes to take us right to the edge and bring us back again.

An exhibit at the NY Historical Society The online version shows only a few of the works on exhibit.

"The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11" Very powerful, direct, some extraordinary skill and insight.

Photography of Ground Zero by Joel Meyerowitz

The New Yorker. An archive of articles, poems, images on 9/11. Also, read this article by Art Spiegelmen on how he created the stunning black-on-black New Yorker cover of the twin towers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

One Year Ago

Just over a year ago I flew back East to pack up the rest of my belongings, ship my books west via Media Mail, and get ready for the temporary technical editor job awaiting me (due to start September 19). I came to California with a cat, a laptop, and a suitcase, but I still had hundreds of boxes of books, clothes, kitchen junk, financial records, and so much else left in somewhat leaky storage. Now I had to deal with it all.

At first I gave myself a week. I would fly out September 4 and return on the 11th. And since my brother-in-law had been bumped from a flight and was giving me his free pass, I had to fly United.

"Hey, I could fly through Boston! They have a flight that leaves just after 8AM."

No, it went through LA, and I didn't want to change planes again to get home. But I did make one set of reservations to fly home September 11; a week or so later I changed them to Friday, September 14. Lisa knew I would need a few extra days to finish packing. She was right.

I didn't know I would spend September 11 in utter shock, packing, listening to the towers collapse on the radio. I didn't know that I wouldn't be able to ship my many boxes of books Media Mail because the post offices all closed down. I didn't know I would spend those few extra days in the east desperately worried about my friends in New York — those who worked at Ground Zero or lived near enough to be vulnerable — and my friends at the Pentagon. Dreaming of rescuing one friend, a high-level financial fund manager, from her burning office at Ground Zero. Trying to find my husband, who had just left the job he'd had in Massachusetts and moved to the DC area. I didn't know I would have to wake Michele up on that Tuesday, calling from the east: We're under attack. They've flown two airplanes into the World Trade Center. I love you, but I don't know when I'll get home. Or how.

Every possible way to get back to California was blocked. The airlines shut down. Amtrak shut down. Greyhound shut down. I was trapped at my sister's house in upstate New York, not quite home, 3,000 miles from home.

I was able to leave on the first flight out from Ithaca. On the way to the airport I stopped and bought myself a used paperback: The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarre. That book — a brilliant, multifaceted, profoundly humane look at the Arab/Israeli conflict, the techniques and motives of terrorists, and the use and construction of bombs — was my gesture of defiance and challenge. I read it most of the way home, in a plane so jammed I could barely breathe. I had read and reread the book before, but if there was ever a time to be willing to face it all, the humanity and desperation and fear of both sides, all sides, in that conflict, then that crowded Friday was the day.

I had my cross-stitch in my carryon bag, along with the book and a lot of other miscellaneous things. When I unpacked the cross-stitch bag, I found I was carrying an eight-inch pair of scissors.

Monday, September 09, 2002

A Sacred Duty

I still read the Philadelphia Inquirer online to stay in touch with events back east. Also, frankly, the Inky is one of the great newspapers. Today’s edition included this story. I can't say anything that would illuminate it or make it more significant. These actions — and the words of this new liturgy — speak for themselves.

Phila. priest tends a 2d flock - 9/11 victims
As chaplain for the N.Y. Medical Examiner's Office, he must comfort those with faith and without.
By Larry Fish
Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW YORK - In a way, Episcopal priest Charles T.A. Flood has had two parishes for the last year - one at St. Stephen's on 10th Street in Center City Philadelphia, and the other at a cluster of refrigerated truck trailers near Manhattan's East River.

The 58-year-old rector of St. Stephen's has been one of two primary chaplains working at New York's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which is the way station for all the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center site across town. The thousands of bits of remains are given identification numbers and stored in the trucks, parked in an off-limits space outside the Medical Examiner's Office on First Avenue, awaiting DNA tests and eventual burial.

Ministering first to the huge team of specialists that received and analyzed the remains, and then to the family members who regularly visit the site, Mr. Flood said the experience had deepened his faith and spirituality, despite the fact that the guidelines for the interfaith chaplaincy require that the symbols and language of his Christian background be kept out of this work.

"We're here as a symbol of the presence of God in the worst of circumstances," Mr. Flood said. "We are not here acting as Episcopalians."

On Wednesday, the anniversary of the attacks, Mr. Flood will preside over services at St. Stephen's at noon, then head to New York and the Medical Examiner's Office for the rest of the day.

Being a chaplain under almost any circumstance is a very different kind of ministry from being a parish priest or imam of a local mosque, said Jo Schrader, executive director of the 3,800-member Association of Professional Chaplains, based in Illinois.

Most chaplains work in hospitals or other institutions where people face crises but may share no religious understanding. The chaplain must be able to deliver a message broad enough to include everybody, but still be meaningful to those with well-formed beliefs.

"They have to have the ability to minister to anyone of any faith, or of no faith," Schrader said. "It puts a lot on their plates. There's a difference in skills. There's a difference in knowledge" compared with clergy who deal primarily with those of their own traditions.

Mr. Flood, who also briefly worked directly atop the rubble pile of the World Trade Center shortly after Sept. 11, admitted that at first he found it a little unsettling to be representing not a specific church or even faith, but God.

"You're stepping out as a religious shaman almost - as a stranger outside the tribe," he said.

The chaplaincy at the Medical Examiner's Office was begun in mid-September by another Episcopal priest, Betsee Parker. Mr. Flood joined her in late October, and they have had volunteers come and go throughout the year.

They were funded by the American Red Cross through April, and operated from a trailer office parked near the refrigerated trucks. Their "parish" consisted of the hundreds of specialists working daily at the site, and Mr. Flood said people of all faiths, and those with no real beliefs, were there.

"It's hard work" to find the words to speak to such a diverse group, he said.

"It's really an attempt to find common religious iconography and identity. It is not an attempt to bring everything down to mooshy pap. It's an attempt to make things so simple that everybody understands."

Mr. Flood wrote the litany that is now used at the services held outside the trailers every Friday.

"We give thanks," the litany says in part, "for those in our own time who have inspired us, for Mother Teresa, for Martin Luther King Jr., for Gandhi who showed us the path of peace."

After a moment of silence, the litany continues:

"We bless with our tears the ground which has been made holy by the blood of the innocent. The hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gas chambers where the innocent of God's chosen people were slain. The killing fields of Cambodia. The City of Oklahoma - ground consecrated by the blood of children."

In the litany's concluding prayer, the leader says that "God asks us to leave this place and take up the cause of our own lives."

"If an artist was lost, then some of us must find a creative spirit within ourselves and fill the void. If a person of faith was lost, then some of us must become deeper people of faith."

It ends with a call for God to "hold those who died in your arms... . May these souls and the souls of all the departed rest in peace."

Mr. Flood said some families who now attend the services, which are closed to outsiders and the press, want to light candles or leave flowers. Others want no religious observance at all, he said.

Since April, when Red Cross funding ran out, Ms. Parker and Mr. Flood have essentially operated out of their own pockets. Though they are officially attached to the medical examiner's staff, they are not paid. Mr. Flood has been buying his train tickets to New York.

He said he and Ms. Parker were prepared to keep the chaplaincy running for as long as three years, which medical examiner Charles S. Hirsch said might be the duration of the operation.

Even if families should stop coming, Mr. Flood said, he felt he should be here to represent the presence of God with the dead whose remains rest in the trailers.

"Our presence here is a sacred duty," he said.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

Lumps in the News

Spent far too much time Friday at Kaiser, getting the Lump looked at. The result was (after all these days of frustration, waiting, and unreasonable delays) that the doctor looked at it, felt it, listened to the history. . . . and offered me a prescription for my eczema while I wait for the next month or so for a dermatology appointment to open up.

Oh, and sometime in the next two weeks I can expect a call from a surgeon, who will grope the Lump; transfix it with needles; order various blood tests (gotta stock up on orange juice); scrutinize it magnetically, radiographically, and sonically; and then slice open my thigh and yank it out. No question, it must be removed; given its size, the trouble I’m already having with that leg, and the slight but interesting possibility of liposarcoma, they need to take it out. I can expect surgery probably around the end of September, maybe mid-October, and a pathology report within a month of the surgery.

It was clear to my doctor (as it has been to me these ten days) that this is not an infected cyst. So the ten days of antibiotics (with consequent faint nausea, the omnipresent taste and smell of mold, and the disagreeable gastrointestinal symptoms) were a waste. I never had the feeling that I had an infection — and I’m sorry, but that does matter. I know my own flesh.

One of the hardest things for me to convey to people is that I’m not worried about the outcome — the possibility of cancer isn’t what bothers me. In fact, the possibility is low. Lipomas run in my family, so I’ve seen them and I don’t fear them. Anyway, they’re the most common kind of soft-tissue tumor, and they’re benign by definition. I’m pushing for medical treatment on this one, though, because I had that liposarcoma scare nine years ago, and I’d rather get it out and make sure it isn’t a problem.

All this I face with calm. What distresses me about this is the medical process itself. I’m not worried about the lump. I am suffering from it, and telling me it will turn out all right is no consolation for the present misery: being stripped and handled; telling the same story over and over again to indifferent ears; being pierced, sliced, dissected; being weak and in pain.

I feel like a woodchuck being dissected. That was one of my father’s hobbies when I was very small, four years old or less. He approached the task with an unholy glee, and he made me watch as he cut it open and then touch the insides. I always knew that next time it could be me he was opening. My skin ripping under the scalpel, my ridged trachea sliced into silence, the gush of slime and blood as he cut into my guts (such vivid and beautiful colors), my secret internal stench of viscera. I would never eat a chocolate rabbit, fearing what I would see and taste when I bit the head off.

So no wonder I loathe being subject to medical procedures. I know they are necessary. I'm willing to do the work to endure and understand my own reactions. But this is, to me, a worse nightmare than cancer. Cancer in that context is a code word for death, and death at least offers surcease. One of the irrational reactions I've had about this lump has been that I'm going to have to go through a lot of wretchedness and I won't even get to be dead at the end.

When I tried to explain this today, Paul said, "Death isn't a consolation prize." It is, though, sometimes. If you're being tortured.

And it's a measure of how much better my life is these days that I am not willing to die. I would rather live, even if I have to endure a lot of horrors.
Oh, All Right, Another Internet Quiz

What revolution are You?
Made by altern_active

But I have never dropped acid. Honest. My major vices are Diet Dr. Pepper, books, and the occasional new skein of overdyed silk floss.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Toys for Tots

Do check out Neil Gaiman's blog for September 4. Then follow his advice. I was amused.
Not Just Cats, Either

From a web tutorial on taking photos of cats.

There are four sorts of cats:
* Friendly cats, that want to achieve maximum transfer of fur to your clothing.
* Scaredy cats, that have a zone of tolerance and as soon as you enter, they run away.
* Indifferent cats, that have seen it all before and are not interested in you right now.
* Hungry cats, tend to want your attention a whole lot more than normal. Note: this is a temporary state.

There are many more kinds of cats than this. Actually, one of the things that always amazes me is how similar each of us is to our individual cats.

Michele's Little Bit wants nothing more than to be in someone's lap, being petted, and happy in the knowledge that a pinned-down human cannot possibly go anywhere or do anything. She wants her people *right there* and *paying attention* to her. Though Michele herself doesn't wander around the house meowing when she isn't getting her share of attention, she is fundamentally happiest when she has her family snuggled around her.

Sonja's Ivan is easily the most beautiful of all the cats, sleek and elegant and always soooo well-dressed. Though he's taking a little time to relax and get comfy with everyone, he is at heart very affectionate. Especially at night. I have never understood why he gets jumpy in the daytime but is perfectly happy to be petted after dark. Sonja is basically a warm and playful person, though she can withdraw when she's startled. And she has the best sense of style of us all.

Gabriel, Spawn of Satan, AKA Fuzzbucket, is considerably more elegant than I am, but we're both essentially wild animals who come in sometimes for food and petting. Not that she permits much petting of herself; she'd much rather lick and groom the person she has chosen to sit down on. When she's done, she lets you know with a brief valedictory bite. We both need a *lot* of space, but we can be cozy, too. At least I don't stroll around on the tops of eight-foot bookshelves, though I've always loved high places best.

Paul's late cats — Simon and Sinbad — were both very like him in different ways. Simon was cool, calm, and massive — one of the least excitable animals I have ever seen. Sinbad was clearly a scientist, constantly doing experiments in gravity, the breakability of glass, and the spill patterns of liquids. The results had to be reproducible, too. He used to get up on top of the fridge and carefully nudge things off with his paw to see if they would really fall this time. What better cat for a chemist?

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Arrest Those Men — They're Fiscal Terrorists!

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The economic cost New York City suffers as the result of the Sept. 11 attacks will range from $83 billion to $95 billion, partly depending upon how many jobs are shifted out of the city, a new report said on Wednesday.

City Comptroller William Thompson also estimated in his new report that it will cost $21.8 billion to replace the buildings, infrastructure and what he called "tenant assets" lost as a result of the attacks that toppled the World Trade Center.

Think about that. Those guys stole more than three times what it would cost to replace the World Trade Center, including desks, computers, carpeting, and Muzak. They stole nearly as much as NYC lost in the aftermath of that disaster.

I'll have to look up the numbers for the amount stolen in the S&L scandals of Bush Mach I.

Heyyyyyyyy, these guys are pikers! According to this summary, the S&L scandal will ultimately cost the taxpayers $1.3 trillion — which might have been only $20 billion if the government had started to face facts before the 1988 election.

These numbers are from a book called Inside Job. I don't know how reliable that book is, so I checked with another capitalist bastion: Forbes. In a recent article, they mentioned that just the Lincoln S&L collapse cost "billions" in investor money. (That's the one that Charles Keating was involved in.) They also mentioned the insider-trading scandals of the early 1980s and the Wedtech scandal.

It's easier and more fun and a hell of a lot more dramatic to blame outside agitators for attacking America. And there's no question that September 11 was a terrible tragedy. Words can't begin to do justice to the heartbreak of ordinary people dying at their desks, or the courage of those firefighters toiling up the stairs, trying with their last breath to save lives. But I think we need to look at the less easily televised tragedies of small investors, people who have worked all their lives, whose pension funds and retirement savings have been plundered by clean-cut American citizens who already have more money than they can possibly spend.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

And Now, For Something Completely Contemptible. . .

The not-so-secret dirty secret of the crash is that even as investors were losing 70%, 90%, even in some cases all of their holdings, top officials of many of the companies that have crashed the hardest were getting immensely, extraordinarily, obscenely wealthy. They got rich because they were able to take advantage of the bubble to cash in hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of stock--stock that was usually handed to them via risk-free options--at vastly inflated prices. When the bubble burst, their shareholders were left holding the bag. But, hey, they had theirs.

How much did they take in? We'll get to that in a second, but first we need to explain the criteria for the list that accompanies this story. First, we looked at companies that had hit a market cap of at least $400 million--and fallen by at least 75% from the highs they reached during the bubble years. Second, we counted insider stock sales from 1999 onward. (That's why Gary Winnick's tally comes to "only" $508 million on our list; he had sold a ton of Global Crossing stock before 1999.) And third, we included only stock sold by top executives and board members; the quick profits made by the venture capital firms that funded the dot-com boom were excluded. (Also excluded in all but a very few cases--largely because it's impossible to track--was stock sold by company officers after they left their jobs. For the same reason, we did not include the cost of acquiring the shares; in most cases option prices were so low that including that cost would hardly affect the totals.) What we cared about, ultimately, was a simple, straightforward thing: How much cash did the top executives at America's Losingest Companies reap by selling their shares to the investing public?

Even with these fairly narrow parameters, the numbers are astounding. Executives and directors of the 1,035 corporations that met our criteria took out, by our estimate, roughly $66 billion. Of that amount, a total haul of $23 billion went to 466 insiders at the 25 corporations where the executives cashed out the most. Those are the companies that make up this list.

The top 25 include some big and obvious names: Cisco (CEO John Chambers: $239 million), for instance, and AOL Time Warner, parent of FORTUNE's publisher (chairman Steve Case: $475 million). But they also include companies you would be surprised to find on a top-25 list of any kind. Executives and directors at a software maker called Ariba raked in $1.24 billion even as its stock was falling from $150 to around $3. Yahoo executives reaped $901 million in stock sales while the company's shares fell from $250 to about $11.

Somebody, please send these guys to jail.

And they say we don't need government regulation of business — that market forces will ensure Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I would also like to point out the source of these numbers. Is it a notorious left-wing hippie do-gooder magazine like Mother Jones? Nope, though they have an interesting editorial on the potential political effects of corporate scandals. Is it a brilliant social satire from Mad? No, though they feature a devastatingly funny story of the Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal. It is a classic list from Fortune, one of the most respectable business journals and a bastion of free enterprise.