Bingo

Surreal. The detour taken.

_______________________________________

Weekends were a drag unless Margot and I carted ourselves to the city to watch a movie or browse a street fair. You scored points for walking the line, so we often wound up at Lake House acting like we belonged.

Bingo was popular on Sunday afternoons. Amy Lou, a counselor, would bring out the game and a kettle of Charles potato chips. Margot wore a sign on her head that said badass and lived up to that designation. The shout out of “O69” found her heckling: “Toothpaste, mouthwash.”

Amy Lou wasn’t an idealist. She couldn’t conceive of any of us ever acting normal, so she protested Margot’s innuendo, and that fueled my new friend even more. “I wish I were stoned,” she belted out.

That bait was fishing’s best lure, and Amy Lou took it even though she should know better. “Do you want me to write you up?”

“Be my guest.” Margot lifted her palms outward.

I knew she didn’t want to get stoned. Her secret fantasy was to lie on a beach in Hawaii sipping a tropical drink. One night Margot pointedly told me she didn’t do drugs. We had been in the basement lounge listening to drop-dead segues on WFMU from the ancient radio.

We spent Saturday nights down in the basement where no one else went because you couldn’t smoke down there. We sat on the frightful baroque sofa complete with plastic cover. We made a vow to get the hell out and stay out.

Bingo lasted for about an hour.

“Scope, Altoids,” Margot shot back one last time.

“You’ve lost your privileges,” Amy Lou referred to some mythical privileges that in reality we didn’t have.

Our weekday curfew was ten o’clock, and our weekend curfew was midnight. A real stoner guy came in at 3:00 a.m. all the time, and no one did anything about it. Ironically, he was the first resident to move up to the next level of independent supported housing.

You were yoked to the staff, and any extended absence sent alarm bells ringing in their heads. You had to clear with them every outside event away from Lake House. I was glad I had traveled to San Francisco before I arrived here. Pretending to be somewhere you weren’t was the norm. They wouldn’t check up on you if you were back in time.

The counselors got us tickets for concerts at BAM in Brooklyn or the 92nd Street Y, and they herded us into the van clearly marked Lake House to the world. Only, I welcomed these excursions because it was a chance to bumble about the city. I got excited riding there in the early evening as the lights lit up the Manhattan skyline.

One woman who volunteered at the BAM ticket booth was tall and wore a chartreuse cardigan that I coveted. I fell in love with the life I imagined she led.

I came home from these trips deflated like a punctured tire. I wanted to drive the highway of life. Instead, I had to settle for bingo and chips.

Everyone got up to leave the dining table, and Margot cocked her head: “Basement?”

“Of course.” I followed her downstairs.

“That was fun,” she said. And turned the stereo up loud.

MFA: Boon Or Boondoggle?

From time to time I will talk about the writing life in a category of blog entries under the title the writing life.

It might interest readers who have the urge to tell their story or write a book.

I recently read in the book Happiness, a collection of essays taken from the critical literary journal n+1, a chapter by Keith Gessen, a guy who was a penniless writer forced to teach fiction at a college. He does have an MFA, and sold a book for a six-figure advance (advances are always against future royalties.) Yet for most of his writerly life, he existed on $15K to $20K in yearly income.

This will be the first writing myth I bust: that a traditional avenue for a writing career is the only one a would-be writer should aspire to.

First: I’m not a fan of most MFA fiction (or fiction for that matter), so I’m biased against having a job in an “ivory tower” academic institution where you teach writing to students. I read a fine column in Poets & Writers about how real-life experience is vital to have as a writer, instead of going the paper-mill route.

I make an exception: certain MFA writers are good–like Danzy Senna. And it’s a matter of preference, because Heidi Julavits is a famous MFA-writer, and I found nothing spectacular about her first book, The Mineral Palace. (I read it when it first came out.)

She was on a panel discussion I attended titled: “MFA: Boon or Boondoggle” easily over 10 years ago.

The myth of having to write full-time, the myth of most writers being able to earn a livable income solely from writing, is just that: a myth.

The wind-up:

To get an MFA, you have to think of your R.O.I., or return on investment: if you’ll recoup the expensive tuition by getting a book deal with a decent advance.

I will return on Thursday with a more hopeful scenario to combat this common dilemma.

Personality Crisis

This comes from the first chapter that recreates the days following when I moved into the halfway house. I don’t recommend anyone do what I did. Instead, research your options and be not afraid to do something different. I don’t think any young person should be shunted into a traditional day program. I’ve formed this stance in retrospect because of my time spent writing the memoir. I do not offer this advice flippantly. Nor do I recommend ditching a treatment plan that could actually work. My contention is that you have to do your research and choose wisely what you do after you’re first diagnosed when you’re young.

The title of the blog entry is a reference to the song title of a song one of the characters was singing on the first day I moved into the halfway house. She and I got out of the system. So few of the others did. It’s all too easy to get led down the wrong path. And true a better option might not exist where you live. It seemed like I had no other options circa the fall 1987.

___________________________________________________

Waking up come Monday morning I heard the Sugarcubes on loud from in that room. This could get very interesting—first punk rock and now Icelandic pop.

I washed my face in the sink, barely removing my eye makeup so I didn’t have to apply it again. It saved time. Today I didn’t want to be late again for the new day program. Ellen sent me to Meadow because she didn’t think I was ready for a part-time job, not even volunteer work, and Rise was meant to be short-term.

Soon I met the woman who liked rock-n-roll. In the kitchen, she made herself coffee, and I poured myself a bowl of Cheerios. Her corkscrew hair snaked out around her face.

“I’m Margot,” she introduced herself, bringing her mug to the table where I sat.

“Chris.” I looked anywhere but at her face.

“I’ll walk with you to Meadow,” she said. It was the second day program I attended.

“Thank you.” I soaked up her kindness.

She wore a red leather MC and motorcycle boots. I coveted her style.

“You live in the room with the music.”

“Yes. I’ve heard your punk. I like it. The woman next to me listens to Slim Whitman.” She rolled her eyes.

I laughed. “I love your leather jacket.”

“It’s an ex-boyfriend’s. I broke up with him and never gave it back.” That was so cool. I knew I’d like knowing her. I hoped this would turn into a friendship. It would satisfy Brett. I’d have an ally in this strange world.

“Let’s go. It’s late.” We placed our cups and bowls in the dishwasher and left.

We walked in silence the five blocks to the building. On arriving, she told me she’s in Level One, the highest rung on the ladder of groups, and walked down the hall. My counselor, Abby, placed me in Level Five, at the bottom. Today I was going to make the case that she elevate me at least to Level Two. I turned the corner and entered the morning group therapy.

Sylvia, a woman with punched-out eyes, applied her face: turquoise eye shadow and fuchsia lipstick. Abigail strummed worry beads and prayed under her breath. My anger was red as a drumbeat. I railed against being in this group because what passed for therapy was usually talk about the weather, and even so, I thought it rude to use the meeting as a beauty parlor.

The therapist, Andre, asked first off if anyone had an issue he or she wanted to discuss, and a guy asked, “Does anybody know why the train was late?”

After we’d gone around about this, a woman with a haunted face wanted to know why it was so cold. “Is there a wind chill factor?” I could see her blue veins through her thin arms.

Burl, a man with lagoon eyes and wild grass hair, stared at me the whole time. I slogged through this session until it was time to meet my counselor for the progress report. Abby ushered me into her office at eleven-thirty, and I took a seat in front of her desk. She was a lavender kind of woman, and I hated pastels.

Here I was at another day program, and I wanted to move faster.

“Why?” I asked automatically. “Why did you put me at the bottom? I’d like to be in one of Margot’s groups. Why can’t I have a goals group and a work-search group?” It was called Life Management, and it was available for those at the highest level, where you could work on planning for the future and what you would do when you graduated the program. As far as I could tell, everyone at the bottom had been here three, four, five years, or more. Though I’d only been here two months, I was itching to get out.

Abby said, “I placed you there because when you first came here, you barely talked and were extremely quiet.”

“How am I supposed to get support if people just talk about why the train was late or how the weather is outside?” I challenged her, and she winced. “Is that what group therapy is supposed to be about?”

Abby caressed the round glass paperweight on her desk. Before she could respond, I continued, “This place is a playpen. It’s a holding pen for people who can’t function on the outside. How is Meadow going to help me? I want out.” I feared the longer I stayed here, I would give up on myself, just like the others had.

“I tell you what. I’ll talk with the other staff, and in three weeks, if we’ve noticed an improvement, I’ll consider moving you up.”

Yes, it was going to happen. I was going to make it happen.

Abby said, “Nice haircut. Keep it up.”

I’d gotten a new style: longer in front, framing my face; shorter in back, with bangs spiked up. I liked it; I did. Kind of a modern bob. It made me look young, even though I didn’t need to look any younger.

She told me, “Next up I want you to work on your makeup and clothes.”

“Fair enough,” I said, though I wasn’t quite ready to take the leap.

“Okay, you can go to lunch,” Abby dismissed me.

Putting Your Quirks To Work

The October Oprah magazine has an article titled “The Power of Quirk”: why the qualities that set us apart are often the ones that help us succeed.

Alexandra Robbins, the writer of the article, wrote: “Here’s my discovery: Each of the adults said the difference that caused them grief in school eventually led to something wonderful. And when they kept nurturing that quality, it continued to give them an advantage.”

I recommend you fill in the blanks in the QuirkBook that accompanies the article to find out what drives you.

Management consultant Gary Hamel is quoted that what lies at the heart of inventive thinking is: “a knack for seeing the world in a way no one else does.”

To wit: “embracing your quirk helps you become the you-est version of you and share that you-ness with the world.”

I’m all for celebrating and expressing our quirks.

It takes guts to be honest and authentic. Yet the world doesn’t need another person pretending to be someone he or she is not just to be accepted.

I’m not impressed with fakes. I’m not impressed with what passes for normal.

You’re not a rhinestone; you’re a diamond. So shine your one and only light in the world and the ones that matter will accept you for who you are.

The others: we don’t need to try to impress them if they’re going to judge us for having our quirks.

What’s not to love about a quirk?

It’s time to celebrate the individuality of spirit that everyone has instead of attacking others for being different.

Difference is beautiful. Dare to be different in a world of copycats.

Own your quirks. Use them to your advantage.

The Cat Mold

The calendar moved on, and I wasn’t. This is a reference to the first “day program” I attended.

______________________________________________

All that winter I cried myself to sleep every night. I drove to Rise in the cold dark of the morning and returned home in the gray sunlight of a nowhere afternoon. I sat across from Flora in tears during our sessions. The jewelry workshop ended and with it my connection to the outside world.

A guy from Rise had a father who owned an Italian restaurant, and he invited us to dinner there. It was all I could do to get dressed in some kind of decent outfit and drive across the island for the meal. What I wore: some kind of turquoise-and-black long-sleeve tie-dye shirt and leggings and the necklace of connected circles that was my favorite. Mario was a happy-go-lucky guy whose demeanor masked his depression. Every day he got up and went to Rise and had something positive to say to everyone else. I was sealed inside my agony like I was entombed.

What could I do? I was so exhausted from the Stelazine that I sometimes fell asleep in the community meeting. I once had a cold and took a Benadryl and dropped off stoned asleep for the rest of the day.

I got very good at making ceramics: a blue copycat Ming vase, a doll that beat a drum with the word love on it that I painted yellow and green and purple, and of course, the cat mold. By the time spring arrived, I had made three: an Egyptian cat with green eyes, a white one that I glued blue rhinestones to for eyes, and a sandy cat.

The cat mold was popular at the day program.

This was the kind of thing that constituted victory.

Memoir Status

I’ve read the manuscript 5 times and I will have the interior text formatted and cover design created soon.

I hope to have Left of the Dial go on sale by November 10th.

My stance is that you need to review your book thoroughly to make sure it is as professional as can be.

I would like to lead a memoir workshop after the book is published.

I’ve quickly gotten over the idea of self-publishing. As long as you have a great book, it’s OK. This can lead to traditional publishing down the road.

Also: traditional publishers are only interested in snatching up the next James Patterson or guaranteed bestseller. Their ability to assess the potential of great literature is faulty. They fail to pick up on worthy contenders all the time.

My book will be available via CreateSpace.

Stay tuned for more news.

Too Much

Here’s another memoir excerpt in the order the excerpts appear in Left of the Dial:

_____________________________________________________

Now I was alone with the memories of last New Year’s Eve. It was the end of 1986, and Sinead was spinning records on-air that night. I drove over to the radio station with a couple of six packs of Harp’s. Carny and I hung out in the women’s room across the hall, drinking and laughing and having a good time.

We weren’t allowed to drink in the studio or the radio station office and most likely shouldn’t have been drinking on campus at all. We hid the containers in a stall while drinking in front of the sinks. Willy joined us at nine o’clock. His eyes were sullen moons, and his nostrils flared as if he had done a bump. I got the idea that my presence was an inconvenience to him, and he went along with Carny to please her.

We ordered pizza, and he reluctantly trudged outside to the guard booth of the parking lot to retrieve it. Domino’s—they would deliver in under a half hour. He ordered one with pepperoni and, to humor me, bought a second one with mushrooms only.

Sinead slipped in during a long song to have a slice.

For the last hour of the radio show, we joined her at the microphone. She called her show “The Year-End, Rear End Review of 1986 Record Picks” and mixed the top 120 songs the disc jockeys played on the radio for the last twelve months.

Carny and Sinead both announced the songs with glee, laughing through the chorus of “Year-End, Rear End Review of 1986 Record Picks.” Over and over they shouted out those words.

It was like I was hovering in space. That night I was far away from the island and suspended in hope.

Sinead closed down the studio and locked the office doors at two in the morning. We each carried a six pack out to my car so I could dispose of the evidence elsewhere. I drove everyone home like my car was an airplane—with a sure hand. I had stopped drinking when Willy arrived and was clear-headed by the time we had to leave.

Tonight I tucked this memory in my mind to retrieve again when I was feeling blue. At six in the morning, I stood washing and scrubbing the dishes at the kitchen sink. I looked out the window at the silent, empty world that would never be mine.

Tears flowed uncontrollably. It was the lowest point of my life. I had hit rock bottom and couldn’t see a way out of my pain. I sat in the wicker chair in my room, crying for two hours.

The Fetchin’ Bones lyrics to the song “Too Much” drifted into my head. I saw my whole life, and it was truly too much. I was ready to consider pulling the plug.

 

Left of the Dial Amazon Page

Memoir News

I hope to have Left of the Dial go on sale in 7 weeks on November 10th.

Next Monday I will publish another memoir excerpt here. I will try to post a memoir excerpt to this page on the coming Mondays up through when the book goes on sale.

It will be available as a paperback and I hope to have it available as an e-book at the same time.

I’ll give links here and on my author website to the online booksellers.

Stay tuned.

Courage: A Sister’s Prayer

After:

Firefighters have died. Police officers have died.

Papers and papers are blowing around the streets.

People are donating blood that is in short supply.

The Twin Towers no longer stand . . . what’s next? A missile attack while everyone’s looking elsewhere?

Those that survive will bear years of survivor guilt.

The Nine-Inch Nails lyrics popped into my head: Bow down before the one you serve you’re going to get what you deserve.

A teen stood in black boots with a black Nine-Inch Nails tee shirt on in front of the school where I passed on my way home. Once inside, I turned on the CD player and listened to the song, “Head Like A Hole.”

I called Aunt Rose. My aunt said my brother M. is at his firehouse right now.

Firefighters have died.

Police officers have died.

A triage area has been set up at Chelsea Piers.

“A million tons of rubble fell down on people.”

“Hundreds have lined up to give blood.”

People walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home.

How can I trust?

How can I serve God best unless I do not wear my faith on my sleeve?

My life will not ever be the same. None of ours will.

Allah, God, Yahweh, the Lord, Jehovah, Buddha . . . all are one and the same.

Whose God is any better? Whose mission more sacred? What has anyone done to you?

Black, White, Asian, Caucasian, Gay, Straight, make love, not hate.

Oh, I am glad I had the courage to follow my vision and get away from that life as I had known it. The different drummer I march to now beats a tune I cannot forsake: to join my God in liberating others from stigma and oppression.

When I die, it will not be in vain. I will have done everything in my power to rise up and fight these obstacles.

None of us are crazy-these terrorists are the insane ones, for they have used your Word to justify killing innocent people.

Cardinal Egan, on the radio, is cool, collected, and offers wise words: “We are in the hands of God.” He asks us to understand that good can come of this.

I shut off the radio now. It is hot again. I wear my long polyester black skirt and red tee shirt.

God bless my cellulite!

God bless my panty lines!

God bless my funky red plastic eyeglasses!

God bless the downtrodden!

God bless the heroin addicts!

God bless the Arabs!

God bless my meager salary that puts food on the table and clothes on my back.

God bless all of us, and bless all of our imperfections.

Evening:

I called Mom. M. is now in Manhattan. “He is trained,” she tells me. My brother is licensed to be an EMT as well; he’d gone to school for that before he became a firefighter.

I kneel at the side of my bed and pray aloud.

88 AM radio:

“They are still operating in a search-and-rescue mode.”

I cry to God: “How could we have veered so far from your plan for us?”

He knows the seed was planted long ago.

My throat is thick, the apartment is hot-I have every window open.

Will I sleep tonight? Against my will: I am so tired now. I do not trust. I will sleep anyway.

Night:

My friend Samia called. I told her my brother is a firefighter and has been dispatched to Manhattan. We talked. She said, “It’s the work of a coward to kill innocent people.”

I responded, ” A coward? You know what they said.”

“Yes,” she told me.

Samia is a Muslim.

At 8 p.m. I turn on the radio. This is unfathomable. I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. I will keep the radio on this evening. I am so tired. It takes an act of courage to continue.

This day re-affirms my belief that I’m here to be compassionate. The future is not secure for any of us now.

“About 200 firefighters and police are presumed dead.”

“There are literally hundreds of people who will not come home from Manhattan tonight.”

What matters most for us? God’s final plan: unconditional love.

It is indicated that members of Osama Bin Laden’s team may be responsible.

“Half of the firefighters who responded first on the scene may be dead.”

Later:

I am afraid to call D., who is pregnant with M.’s child. Two hundred firefighters, the first ones in, are declared dead; ninety-eight police officers are missing.

I want to talk to God; I want him to speak to me.

Why? Why? Why?

I will not rest until I know my brother is okay. How can I sleep? I will try. It is only 10:30 p.m. and I am exhausted from listening. I am so tired.

The morning after:

I’m alone in the kitchen at work. I call the hotline for the families of firefighters.

M. is NOT on the list of the missing. M. is alive.

Truth

I typed up word-for-word the journal entry I wrote on September 11, 2001.

The library had been shut down because of the terrorist attacks. I stayed home: my year tuned to the radio because I didn’t have cable so my TV reception was halted.

At the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG) poetry event years ago I read this journal entry.

A woman in the audience told me she went home and cried because of what I wrote: it was that powerful.

I’m going to keep this blog entry short and then publish here the original journal entry.

I will not ever go to the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero.

I consider the firefighters who were first responders to be civilian veterans who served our country in a time of war. I consider the terrorist attacks to be an act of war committed on American soil.

The responders who died are in a far better place than our world will ever be.

The ones who lived: we might not get them back either.