Monday, December 13, 2010

Wealthy, poor, and terribly out of place

Hands folded primly on the smooth glass counter, she stood waiting, shifting from one sensibly-clad foot to another, waiting for a customer. She sold jewelry every weekend at a luxury retailer in a tony nearby town, supplementing her teacher salary with a pittance of a commission when a rich person added a shiny bauble to his wife’s collection. She helped wealthy women pick out gifts for themselves and others, rich teens pick out $800 bracelets for their friends, and men make terrible mistakes, despite her guarded guidance, like picking out heart necklaces for 50-year-old girlfriends. This was her Saturday.

She herself wore fancy gems while working, in hopes of selling more amethyst rings and citrine pendants, but they sat atop her cheap blouses looking ridiculous and out of place. Even without her sad smile, she knew she wasn’t fooling the hedge fund wives. Ballet flats from different worlds collided: Tory Burch versus Payless, sharing only a color.

Unlike her colleagues, who sold jewelry full-time, she had the surreal experience of teaching public housing children on a Friday afternoon, then selling $9,000 bracelets (her rent for almost an entire year) on a Saturday morning. It actually mattered when they made a big sale: a juicy commission and the knowledge you made happy a customer who'll be back for holiday and christening gifts. But her commission was tiny, and she couldn't tell the wealthy people, who moved about and shopped anytime they wanted, that she'd be happy to help them next Saturday, when she worked again.

It made for a long day. 

When she was younger, she worked for a caterer on weekends since she made no money as a first-year teacher. Her Saturday nights were filled with ritzy cocktail parties at Gatsby-like homes on the water, and those parties often came to mind these days: There too, she was a means to an end, her hand becoming one with the tray holding the crab cakes...no eye contact or polite pleasantries, with verbalizations limited to "Oh, I love shrimp!" or "Wait" as the women handed over soiled napkins or food remainders.

Whether showcasing canap├ęs or pearl bracelets, she was invisible.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Where you don't want to be

I sat in my car in the liquor store’s parking lot, digging through my purse for the pain pills I’d been on for about two weeks. Tears were streaming down my face as fast as the raindrops hit my windshield. You’re about to toss this back with a tiny bottle of rum at 4pm before you skid back into the office just 100 yards down the road...seriously? I asked myself. Did this make me an alcoholic? In college, I found out my mom’s father was a raging alchie who made life miserable for his kids. Maybe I was about to fall in line. Mmmmmm...this would push Mom over the edge.

I wasn’t really worried. I didn’t have the discipline to be a serious drinker. My laziness would result in me not keeping booze in the house, and I wouldn’t make the effort to leave and visit a bar or liquor store. Sloth would keep me sober.

But my lazy streak won't stop a mental collapse, and when your meltdown occurs between meetings which take you past a liquor store in the afternoon, airplane bottles are not far behind. 

Rap rap rap! My heart, which has almost stopped anyway with the realization of how stupid and extreme my actions are, seizes completely and sits like lead in my chest. If I turn my head and see a cop, what will I do? Is it a moving violation if I'm not moving? Will the sobbing help or hurt?

But it's the cashier with the bad dye job who's run my scarf out to me. As the window slides down slowly, she eyes my tear-stained face and pill bottle and pauses a moment in the rain. She's not one to get involved, her face tells me. Still, her hand grabs mine a moment as she passes my scarf to me. I stare as she trots away, feeling sorry for myself, and my heart starts beating again. I regard the pill bottle in my hand and feel stupid and self-indulgent.

Screw itI'm not wasting perfectly good self-pity just because a stranger gave me a kind lookand I unscrew the tiny bottlecap.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alsace, Nancy, and animal heads

Of all the places I’ve traveled in Europe, France’s Alsace and Loire Valley regions tie for the places I’d most like to rent a car and just putter around for weeks on end. The city of Nancy in particular is a great base from which to explore diverse places like festive Strasbourg, Saarbr├╝cken, Luxembourg, and the great champagne town of Epernay. Alsace is a magical place to celebrate Christmas, if that’s your chosen holiday—and even if it isn’t. Small, jolly cabins fill various squares and parks in Strasbourg, where afternoon shopping turns to evening cups of hot, spiced mulled wine (vin chaud) enjoyed whilst watching bad ice skaters near the cathedral. Cross the border into the village of Kehl, Germany, to both say you did and visit the bakery near the bus stop on the main drag for treats to munch as you wander down the avenue toward the town’s park.

But it’s Nancy that’s the crown jewel. Here, finally, is a French city (that is not Paris) with decent Christmas decorations. (Honestly, I have always been pretty underwhelmed, and I’m not alone.) A stroll down the wide boulevards surrounding the stark but beautiful Place Stanislas turns up sheets and halos of white lights draping streets. On nights thick with potential snow, they seem to hover, the cables holding them aloft invisible. You should walk down Rue Saint-Catherine and take in the colorful storefronts. You should stop for a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) at the art deco Excelsior and sit in the front window near a rickety heater. And you should, without a doubt, eat at the taxidermy-filled, Snow White-meets-TGIFridays-meets-cartoonish saloon Taverne de Maitre Marcel, where you’ll have beer and a tarte flambee and be served by an attentive waitress, to whom you'll be faintly rude since you can’t take your eyes off the stuffed pheasant behind your date’s head.

After dinner, you’ll head down to Place Stanislas again for the evening’s holiday performance, a dreamy affair featuring acrobats floating around on wires and stilts with lights on their tights and wings on their backs. There’ll be fake snow, heckling, cheering, classical music, and fireworks. And then you’ll take your date’s hand, head over to that very hip bar on the corner, notice there’s a white rhinoceros head on the wall for decoration, and wonder what’s in the water here that makes the citizens of Nancy display animals instead of, oh, paintings or non-furry sculpture.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tanglewood, good smells, and forgetting yourself

In years’ past, I would annually brave the crowds at Tanglewood, Massachusetts’ civilized version of Woodstock, to take in the sublime sounds of John Williams and the Boston Pops or any of the talented musicians who often grace the stage. Nowadays, I’ve no tolerance for the traffic, the bugs, or the lugging of the must-have posh noshes to far-flung corners of meadow. (Candelabra: check.)

But what I *do* miss are the smells. The first time you visit Tanglewood, set in a fairytale woods, you’ll no doubt walk away with the same diverse olfactory catalog I did. Sitting on your low folding chair, blanket at the ready to cover your soon-to-be chilly knees, you’ll experience a medley of scents which at once overpower and gently perfume—harmonizing like the woodwinds but also clashing like angry cymbals.

Cigar. Freshly-cut grass. Buttery popcorn. Beeswax candle. Blue cheese. Perfume with a hint of jasmine. Evergreen trees. The sting of a match’s sulphur.

They wrap around you, their diverseness playing counterpoint to the bucolic surroundings--because even though thousands of people are sitting alongside you, it’s still a grassy field in the woods.

And then the maestro mounts the stage, you peer through the candle and wine glasses on the low table in front of you, and you forget all about the aromas which accompanied you just moments before.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Coffeeshops and getting to know your children

The bell jangled, and not in a charming way, as I entered the cramped coffee shop, but I was enamored just the same. I wouldn't have guessed I'd like salmon pink walls with yellow tables and bright white chairs, and yet, my delighted gaze rested upon them as I walked carefully through the patrons filling them toward the counter. Coffee shops not of the large, zombie-like chain persuasion call to me, whether or not I actually need the coffee. I can walk down a street and find myself standing in front of the best one in town, drawn there like a magnet. It's like I've been blessed with a supernatural gift, were I to believe in the supernatural.

After retrieving my coffee from the dull-eyed teen behind the counter, I made my way to the only available table in a corner near what appeared to be a community bulletin board. I settled in and reached for my notebook, only to be startled by an odd question spoken closeby. "What's your favorite family tradition?" says a female voice. At the table beside me sit what must be a mom and her son, a young man in his late teens or early 20s. He looks earnestly at her, buzz cut shining from this morning's shampoo, and ponders her question before giving a thoughtful answer, surprising both me and Mom.

Using my best spy-like sideways glance, I notice they are fingering square cards, and looking to my right, I see I have the same cards. Flipping through them, I see similar questions of the 
first-date variety: Would you rather live for a week in the past or in the future? Is it more fun to be a parent or a child?

Beside me, Son and Mom are discussing how Son likes Thanksgiving as he has fond memories of cooking with Mom as a boy. Shyly, he notes remembering "opening the oven to look at the turkey with you to see if it was done, and it never was" melting Mom's heart. Their discussion moves on to other topics, and they find themselves having, I believe to their surprise and certainly to mine, a rather grown-up conversation about deeper topics most of us don't get to in ordinary, daily chatter focusing on chores we're putting off, TV we're looking forward to, or general annoyances. Mom seems genuinely surprised at Son's thoughtful answers, and I find myself hoping Son doesn't notice. His skinny frame hunched over the tiny table, empty paper cup in his hand, he glances up and down, up and down as he talks with his mom, gaining confidence with every word.

I hoped, as they pushed yellow chairs away from their table and exited, bell jangling with a bit of charm this time, both found new appreciation for each other as adults. As for the coffeeshop, I reiterate to you my expertise at finding the best in town.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting rid of family, Thanksgiving, and the virtues of writing under the influence

Writing under the influence! Like that's never happened before (in time immemorial, not in my writing experience, though that's true as well). If Hemingway could, I can--good god, you know it's bad when I compare myself to Hemingway...like a playwright comparing himself to Willie S.

The family had to go. I host family early on Thanksgiving, which makes them easier to kick out early. (Hence my 5:30pm post.) Sound unlikely? You invite them over late and hope wine with 6pm dinner will make them tired and ready to leave, but you're doing this all wrong. Allow me to suggest an alternative: early.

Early works for me. I get to drink early (during the past hour, a lovely Spanish cava whom I might meet again later tonight) and boot out annoying relatives before lethargy, the real enemy, sets in. We don't watch football, so peeling them away from the TV mid-play isn't an issue. In my family, it's dessert coma which complicates things.

One dessert per person, at a minimum: That's our rule. If you're not careful, that level of sugar intake can immobilize people on couches for hours. If you're smart enough to put pitches of water on the coffee table, within close reach, you will force an occasional bathroom break, which, with careful planning and timing, can turn into an exit opportunity.

It's all in the wrists.

I'm quite sure this Thanksgiving sets a record. Family arrival 2:23pm, family departure 5:12pm to 5:21pm (Great-aunt Ethel doesn't move as quickly as she used to). And not a moment too soon. May you be so fortunate this Thanksgiving day.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scene at the drugstore: happiness, sadness, and more happiness

He stood in the too-bright drugstore candy aisle, head down, thumbs in his beltloops. It looked as though he was deciding between the caramels and the toffee bites, but in truth, he was just staring in their general direction as he pondered what he was about to do.

Given the choice, he would prefer to not rob the young black girl behind the counter, who was picking at her fingernails between ringing up sales. He now knew she had a nervous habit of chatting a little too much with her customers, provoking mild to extreme discomfort. "I'm fine, thank you," she'd say in a mousy voice that got stronger as she went on. "Only 30 more minutes here, and boy am I glad since I'm so hungry--didn't have time to eat lunch, and I walked here really fast, but today's been so, so long! I'm tired--boy, I can't wait to get home, but I think I say that every night!" She ends with a laugh each time, never seeming to notice the foot shifting or sideways glances of uncomfortable people as they stood pinned at the counter, listening to her earnest, sad chatter.

Maybe they're sad they can't open up like her, in such a genuine manner--that ship sailed, I can almost hear several of them think, unconsciously comparing themselves to her. Or they're in a hurry but not quite rude enough to interrupt her. They could be dealing with a tragedy, with such deep sorrow lying so close the surface that any bit of happiness or authentic joy, however tinged with sadness, could crack the fragile surface, and no one wants to boil over at the Walgreens cash register.

Or he could be paralyzed with fear, about to engage in an act of desperation so foreign and terrible he must muster up hate and ugliness to do it. "Oh boy, do I feel like taking home a candy bar, or maybe just popcorn? I'm so hungry I can't even tell. How are you tonight, sir? Am I laughing too loudly? I do that sometimes...ha ha ha! Did you have a good day?"

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mary Baker Eddy, teachers' unions, and the plight of the homeless

While I couldn't possible smell the homeless man from across the street, I felt as if I could--as if those cartoony, wavy lines were rising up from him as he lay propped up against the building, so ugly in contrast to his surrounds. It surely didn't help I had just stepped out of the pristine environs of Boston's Christian Science Center, full of silent, bustling women eager to tell me (but not too forcefully) about Mary Baker Eddy's goodness. The homeless man was certainly not welcome in Ms. Eddy's large stained-glass globe, high-tech lobby, or well-appointed bathrooms.

I took a step into the street. I intended to invite him into Mary Baker Eddy's utopia and see what the very white, very clean, very uptight women would do when confronted with someone who wasn't a pleasant tourist eager to step into this marble-clad palace. But I stopped before my left foot caught up with my right, knowing that while their discomfort would make me feel very goodhighly superior, evenhis discomfort would make me feel very bad...dirty and mean.

Churches do that to memake me feel superior and angry. I'm mad they spend tens of thousandsmillions, in many caseson their buildings while often being surrounded by the squalor of tenements, seedy apartment buildings, and public housing. I fume when I see crosses of gold in neighborhoods where children are starving. The icing on such a distasteful cake? No one has a good answer for why. A friend likened it to teachers' unions. He said, They may want good education for kidsthey surely dobut they're set up to advocate for the adults, not the kids. They're fulfilling their mission regardless of the collateral damage. Churches are just trying to reach their goal of converting anyone, and they go to great lengthsgold crosses and fancy marble statuesto do it.

So today I won't use this homeless man as a toy to taunt the Christian Science Center employeesmake them question the ten-thousand-dollar video display next to them while this man lies in the street just as close. Instead, I walk up to the pretty middle-aged woman robotically greeting museum patrons and ask if she's aware this unwatched slideshow terminal could be feeding thousands of Boston's homeless this month. She blinks, looking down and away. Not as satisfying, but it'll do for today.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Sharpie marker changes a New Hampshire town...plus: good pie, and suicide

As of this afternoon around 3pm, the parking sign on Summer Street in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which had been missing the apostrophe indicating a contraction, had been corrected.


It embarrassed my brother, me pulling the Sharpie marker out of my pocket and striding up to the sign. Ours was a family who operated without boldness, and acts which drew attention were frowned upon: looking at a map to find out where you were, or laughing out loud. And it would only get worse for him, as I planned on openly admiring the beautiful architectural details of the buildings on nearby Grove Street after we finished what was turned out to be a delicious lunch of country ham with mashed potatoes followed by apple pie kissed with the perfect amount of cinnamon.


I like flying over New Hampshire. The countryside looks pockmarked with wetness courtesy of glacial action (or so I posit to myself, ever the romantic). Peterborough's small river was no different than the others flowing through any other tiny New England downtown. The river today was just one more spot on the growing list of places soon marked, in my head, as another place where my brother might jump to his death. Like our great-grandmother, my brother was pulled to places where he might jump and end his life...powerlessly drawn like a bee to a succulent honeysuckle flower. Our great-grannie threw herself out the large front window of her farmhouse's third storyI imagine her sprawled, thin-limbed on the dewy grass of the large front lawn and surrounded by the somber, more-grave-than normal faces I've seen in my grandmother's old photos.


With suicide a theme in my familya gift seemingly intent to keep on givingis it any wonder I end up with a suicidal mentee? Is this the type of person I should rightly be charged with saving? Time will tell if the answer is unequivocally yes, or unequivocally no.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Christmas gifts for schizophrenics

I stare at herrudely, I'm surebut can't look away from her mad, mad blinking. I don't know enough about the host of mental illnesses from which she suffers to know if this is a symptom of one or more, but that fits. It's not normal blinking: She's a robot girl with a glitchher eyelids move so quickly it's clearly uncontrollable, and I sense they might fly off her face with just a bit more effort.


My menteethe girl I mentorhas mental illnesses. Quite a few. And though I've known her for awhile, I don't know much about her diseases: Depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia seem to be The Big Three, though she's talked quite a bit about dissociative disorder, which sounds uncomfortable and possibly dangerous, and a few others. Oh, there's maniathat one I've actually gotten quite good at IDing. It's pretty clear when Stephanie is in a manic state...my mind inevitably wanders to what Lindsay Lohan must be like when she gets high, but Steph doesn't use (nothing without a prescription, anyway).


I'm quite sure my inability to know more, after seven years as this girl's mentor, about her mental illnesses makes me a very bad mentor. I clearly don't listen, and one could certainly argue I don't care enough, since I've done little research about what's affecting her, how I could help, what behaviors I should be watching for, and so on.


And now, yay, Christmas approaches, and I get to think about what to buy a girl who's on and off her meds, thinks she's a great artist but is actually quite terrible, comes from a dirt-poor family, shaves her head, and listens to country music while claiming to be a Goth.


It really is just easier to think about things like that instead of what her life will be like in the coming months and years.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chocolate cake for dinner

My newest habit is eating dessert for dinner. Instead of dinner. A quart of ice cream, or, like tonight, chocolate cake. It's quite safe to say my sweet tooth knows no bounds. Little shames me, but one Easter as a child, a late great-aunt I held in high esteem (she once complimented me on how I politely ate soup) coolly surveyed the chocolate wrappers littering my lap and the floor around me and silently admonished me. I hated disappointing her, yet I hated leaving any chocolate uneaten even more.


When you have a health scare, the little things are amplified. Dessert for dinner goes from "I should" to "you bet I will." Impromptu weekend trips or sneaking out of work early to see a movie? Such small infractions in the grand scheme of things.


And when you're alone with your scare, chocolate cake moves from dessert, to dinner, to friend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rhode Island, wind, & Christmas

I travel quite a bitmost weekends, actually, roaming North America via train and car. Europe calls me at least once a year, and Central America on occasion. But for the holidays, it's off to Rhode Island to visit family.


Rhode Island in the winter is not to be missed. Salty winter air is somehow different than salty summer airdrier with more tang. In the summer, the air is heavy with salt...thick, as if sailing through it might require the use of additional implements. Winter sea air makes the wind's salty edges sharp, cutting your checks as you walk along the water's edge. Few are crazy enough to walk the fort in that wind, so you have it to yourself...just the wind's howl to keep you company. Soon enough, that howl shows up inside your head as a voice you recognize as the voice of reason, and that reasonable voice is saying: You should go have some hot chocolate. 


It's nice to get out of the house, even for just a little while.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Begin the begin: writing, novels, and Salman Rushdie

After many years publishing in small ways, I'm now going to be publishing in a big way. In a big, novel way.

Yes, I'm talking about a novel.

Will I be on Oprah? Not interested. (Though I'm sure she's a lovely woman.)

Will I hang with Salman Rushdie? No. (But I'm pretty sure we shared a patio one spring at a fancy Montreal hotel. Springtime in Montreal means spiders. Big ones. All over. Just so you know.)

And yet, publish I will, not for the perks, but because I just have to tell this story.

Mental illness. Running away. Being a really bad mentor to someone who needs you. (But who you really don't like.)

Stay tuned.