Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The dust bunny process of writing

In my head there is a thought, sometimes it’s something which leaves me breathless with anticipation and sometimes it is as quiet as the gentle drip from a faucet in the middle of the night. The barely audible faucet sound is often the most annoying because it is constant, until it flows from my mind to the ends of my fingers onto the keyboard.

It is amazing to me how symbols form communicated thought and how one person’s silent written communication can move, impress, stir or ire another. Without a single sound the symbols can shout, sing, laugh and whisper from first Cap to period. Being able to sooth or anger using those symbols adds responsibility to our communication.

In my field, when promoted to management, my boss told me to treat all employees like children. She didn’t mean they were children, she meant that when you peel away the grown-up actions of another adult you are really left with the simplistic behaviors of a child, therefore act accordingly. I was not to treat them as if they were ‘my’ child but ‘a’ child. The aim of a parent is to love, to teach and to guide. Dealing with adults at work involves teaching and guiding, love has nothing to do with it, respect does. I didn’t care if they liked me, I just wanted them to do their job and at the end of the day I hoped the folks could say their day at work was worth the effort. The whole ‘child’ thing was about how I was to interact. Not yell, not castigate, not in any way be abrasive or harsh because almost all of them wanted to do a good job, wanted to be rewarded, valued, wanted to be respected for their efforts, not rebuked for their errors.

In my business I have always dealt with district and regional managers. The good ones compliment first, and bring to attention corrections which must be made, later. The SOB’s lambast the first dust bunny and no matter what they say later about how beautiful the place looks or is managed, or how successful we are, that first negative sets the tone.

I do not act negatively toward people, it accomplishes nothing, it hurts feelings, dashes the positive state of mind formed from effort and most of all it stinks, is immature and hurtful. Even if the person I am dealing with is downright stupid, it is not my job to knock the stupidity out of them, it is my job, as a fellow human being, to be respectful of what they are trying to do.  

When language is your business, you must be able to communicate in a way which leaves the listener or reader in a better place. If negative emotions are overwriting, you are a failure at what you are doing because your message will be lost with the dust bunny.

I have, a few times, when threatened for example, stepped outside of my self-imposed boundary and lit-in. On those occasions I usually won, I’m good at it.  But other times, when threat had nothing to do with the situation and all I wanted to do was be rid of the asshole and make a point, I’d win again because I am very good at that; my mother taught me. Winning meant the asshole would never bother me again. That’s what I wanted, that’s what I got. 

It never dawned on me that someday, a person I respected and looked up to would consider me the asshole they wanted to be rid of. And if that was not their intention, they failed miserably at using their language, which is holy in this business of writing.  And to think they do this all the time is sad really, and I feel sorry for them. How could someone want to do this on a regular basis?
At work today I heard the gentle thud of the drip. Once in a while I became distracted but eventually the rhythm of it reached a tipping point and flowed from my mind onto the keys.

In the beginning this started as a thought, now it ends as a promise. I’m just not sure what that promise is quite yet. When I figure it out I’ll let you know. Until then:

Negative is so the reverse of the real picture.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A storm last summer

Last summer my husband and I were parked at the beach. We go there often after dinner; it’s a peaceful time when the beach isn’t crowded and the heat of the day blends with the breezes off the Sound. With the tide exceptionally low we watched as birds searched the flats for food and dawdling beach goers lingered during the calm of the pleasant evening. Within a few minutes of our arrival the peacefulness of the evening took an ominous turn. In the distance behind us we could hear rumbles of thunder and from inside the car I could see in the side mirror the pattern of lightening approaching from the northwest.

I was amazed by how many people continued to walk in the water or along the beach as the storm approached. Hearing some voice concern did not rattle the few who continued their evening stroll along the beach. A van pulled up next to us. The two people in the van I assumed were father and daughter. She was adorable; perhaps nine or ten with long dark hair. As she stepped out of the van a rumble of thunder and flash of lightening frightened her. I was a little surprised they didn’t get back in their vehicle but the father, obviously clueless to the hazards of standing on the beach while a storm approached, walked with his little girl down the sidewalk away from us.

As I often do during thunderstorms I related to my husband for the hundredth time my experience when I witnessed my uncle and another person being struck by lightning. We were in Rockland, Maine, I was twenty-three at the time and we were all inside an enclosed building when it happened. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. My uncle and the other man survived, but outside on the breakwater in Penobscot Sound, which we could see from inside the building, a father and his little boy were struck and killed by the lightning.

The storm at the beach rolled toward us, the sky darkened and thunder shuttered over us in earnest. While continuing to watch the lightening in my side mirror, I heard a child whining. Glancing away from the mirror, the father and his little girl slowly walked in front of our car. She was the one whining, trying to smooth her long hair down. It was standing straight up on end.

“Look at her hair,” I said to my husband.
“I see it."
“Get in your truck!” I shouted from my open window. She looked at me as if I had just yelled fire. I screamed at her. “Get in your truck now!” She ran for the van, climbed in and slammed the door; like saucers, her eyes were wide with fear; then a flash, and almost immediately, thunder shook our car.

Looking at me, the father now between our car and his van, smiled. I thought it odd. How could he so calmly smile at a strange woman who had just yelled at his little girl?

“It’s dangerous,” I said to him, “to be out in the storm.” The women in the car on the other side of us looked at me as if I just threatened the pair with an Uzi. Continuing to smile I realized the man hadn’t understood a word I'd said. Even if he didn’t understand English he should have heard the urgency in my voice, I had just scared the shit out of kid for Christ sake. She was now crying. All of this was happening while the thunder and lightning intensified. He finally climbed into his van. We left the beach along with about half the other cars.

To say my husband was upset puts it mildly. He believed I over-reacted. My knee-jerk reaction to her hair standing on end meant she was in imminent danger of being struck. I believed the last sign, and perhaps the only sign, someone gets is a tingling and static sensation, like hair standing on end, as the charge of the lightning bolt searches for a ground.

Did I scare the girl, absolutely? What plays over in my mind is if I had remained silent; knowing what was happening and saying nothing, she might have been struck right there in front of us.

Did I save her life, perhaps, I will never know but what I do know is that if it were to happen again I’d probably react exactly the same way.

Is scaring a kid to safety right?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Singing in the lane

After a co-worker and I worked a particularly difficult day we hung around for a few minutes talking, or rather bonding, over the significance of our efforts, or insignificance depending on which side of the paycheck you’re on. That’s when she admitted something quite personal about herself, something she said she has always hesitated to share with others. Since I’m not shy about sharing information, especially someone else’s, I’ll just come right out and reveal…she sings in the car. Not only does she sing but when she’s on a long road-trip and plays car tag, you know, passing and being passed as the miles pile on, she stops singing if the same car goes by, she doesn’t want the total strangers she will never see again, see her as back-up for Madonna or Celine.

I laughed, not because it was funny but because I used to do exactly the same thing. That was way back when AM was standard and FM an option; I was the fifth Beatle. Now… not so much; NPR does not inspire auto-dueting.

Our after work conversation went from…since you revealed something…it’s now my turn. I talk to myself, in my car.

Because I write I sometimes practice dialog, opening sentences or log lines. If a particular phrase seems stilted I speak it out loud until it sounds just right. But…here’s the interesting and kind of weird part, sometimes, I’m interviewed. On the way to work the ladies of The View might be asking the questions and on the way home, Diane Sawyer or Anderson Cooper. Yes, I actually practice questions and answers. Why?

I am comfortable talking in front of ten people or ten thousand; I was interviewed by Martha MacCallum on Fox News once, national studio in NYC, (they sent a limo for my five minutes of Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame), so amend that comfort level to millions. It really doesn’t make me nervous, if I am prepared.

Years ago I was invited to be the guest speaker for a group of writers in New London. Even though I had garnered some small success I didn’t have a clue what they’d ask or what I’d answer. So I practiced my speech alone, in the car on the way to work and on the way home, until I felt comfortable with my presentation and with answering just about any question I thought they would come up with. One afternoon, as I was stopped at light, jabbering on and on,  I looked at the car stopped in front of me, it was one of those big old station wagons with a third bench-seat seat facing backwards. Three young boys were staring at me while I was being interviewed by Walter Cronkite. I went mute, embarrassed by those three little boys staring at the whacked-woman flapping her gums in the car behind them. (This was before cell phones and Bluetooth because it looks like everybody is talking to themselves now.) One of the young boys pointed his index finger at his temple and drew small quick-circles, the universal sign for, “lady you are crazy”.

Glancing into the back seat of my car, I pretended to talk to a child in a car-seat; an action in its self which qualified me for the funny farm.

Now, I don’t care who sees me being interviewed by Morley Safer; they’ll just think I’m on the phone.

The next morning when I went to work my co-worker asked me, “So, on the way in this morning you were interviewed by...”

“Oprah,” I said, “and you sang with…”

“Aretha,” she said.

Monday, November 5, 2012


This time last week we were anticipating the wrath of a storm which we believed would be bad, awful even, but who thought it would irrevocably change the lives of millions and almost the entire coastline of New Jersey, New York and much of the Connecticut shoreline. Over a hundred lives lost from Sandy, the heartbreak and misery she wrought on one of the most densely populated areas of this nation will continue for a very long time. As one whose writing-gig is to find humor in difficult situations I have failed miserably on this one. I’ve heard only one joke: A new drink, ‘The Sandy’ a watered down Manhattan. I laughed, sort of, probably because I don’t drink and it’s a little too soon for jokes.

The stories I have heard, in person and on TV, break my heart, the generosity of strangers mends it. I’ve spoken to many folks, trying to find the humor angle, and other than family members and friends whose discordant personalities have no business sharing two hours over a resplendent Thanksgiving table of dead bird, let alone bunking together for a week, (when one is out of power and the other out of patience); I find absurdity but no humor. But I did discover something odd.

The morning after the storm, once my husband and son-in-law cleared the downed trees from our driveway and country road, my daughters and I decided to zigzag our way around town to check out the damage. Many roads were blocked, there was no power, and it was still early, which means there was no one to tell us to scram when we gawked in amazement at the damage.

One town over, and only few miles from where we live, there is a causeway. It’s less than a mile long, bordered by marsh and cove on one side, and Long Island Sound on the other. It’s a beautiful place and though it is vulnerable we hoped it survived. After we twisted our way through town to get there we were disappointed that it was barricaded. Huge trucks were parked at its mid-section, which meant to us, the causeway had been breached by the floodwaters. We were devastated. I parked. Walking around the barricades we approached the work area. Other than the workers we were the only people on the scene. It was comforting to see that the causeway was fine and that the crews and trucks were actually there to cut up and remove the dozens of whole-trees and piles of driftwood which had floated up onto the roadway during high tide at the height of the storm. The immensity of the task seemed daunting considering one of the pieces, scattered among the huge whole trees was a three foot thick slab of tree trunk, at least thirty-six inches across. The tree it had come from had to have been hundreds of years old.

We didn’t bother the DOT crew and they didn’t shoo us away. My daughters’ snapped pictures as we slowly walked the causeway surveying the scene. That’s when I noticed something odd. At first I didn’t mention anything but finally I had to.

“What’s with all the tampon applicators?”
“I noticed them too,” one of my daughters said. Pink and white plastic tubes were scattered everywhere in the sea grass and debris on the causeway. A while back the son of a friend of ours told us that where he lives on Cape Cod, they wash up on the beaches by the hundreds. I told my daughters, that though I thought ocean dumping has been stopped, they were probably from trash barges which dump city garbage way off shore. The rest of the trash must deteriorate but the plastic tubes do not. It was a bit disconcerting to imagine that the one thing which remains of our garbage, after many years in the ocean’s hostile and caustic environment is a bunch of tampon applicators.

As we proceeded to leave the causeway we noticed something else that was little strange; a black running shoe, bent and shriveled from being in the water a very long time. Nothing rather odd about a soaked and shrunken left shoe deposited in the detritus of one of this nation’s worst storms in history, except that next to it, only inches away was its mate, the right shoe. They were not tied together they just lay there, next to each other, as the pair they always had been.

Of the many images of utter destruction I have seen on TV, and damage I have witnessed in person, it is the pink and white plastic applicators which speak to me of human-kinds odd lasting impressions, and the amazement of a simple pair of side by side running shoes at the end of their race against tides and devastation. There’s a lesson there somewhere. I’m just not sure what it is.