Monday, January 30, 2017

My Book Review Of Anne Leigh Parrish's "By The Wayside" - A Collection Of Short Stories

"By The Wayside" is the latest book by talented and inspiring writer, Anne Leigh Parrish, and I became one of the beta readers for it in anticipation of its release on February 8th. When I was asked to be a beta reader for Parrish, I didn't know what a beta reader was! But I quickly realized that it meant I got the privilege of being one of the very first people to read all the stories in the collection before they were officially published and made available to the general public.

I had already read a couple of Parrish's short stories through her online links from her Twitter account. The first story I read was "Artichokes," and I must admit that when I first opened my beta reader copy of  "By The Wayside" and saw that "Artichokes" was included in it, I squealed with the same excitement I used to when I'd surprisingly found out my favorite rock band was coming to town! That's how deeply Parrish's stories can impact. They hit an emotional nerve, and you remember them.

The other story I'd read online is what I'd consider a classic of Parrish's entitled "Where Love Lies." It is about a woman named Dana who moves to a quiet, yet gossipy, island town to escape her former life. Her self-esteem is wrecked, and she wants to start over and rebuild her confidence and heal herself through her love of painting. However, as she befriends an older man and finds herself attracted to another man closer to her age, she realizes that this beautiful island town is everything but serene, and danger lurks because, as she says: "Hating was far easier than loving, and came more naturally."

Yet Dana survives, as Parrish's female protagonists seem to do. No matter how difficult situations get for these strong women, they persist and often turn out wiser and more confident and capable than they were when we first met them in their stories. Not only do we as readers discover shocking truths about them, but the characters themselves are often surprised at the capabilities they hold inside and of what they are able to achieve if they just have the courage to speak up or to make changes in their lives.

In "How She Was Found," lead character, Fiona, begins the story described as a "mouse." She is compliant and insecure, and these traits are not likely to serve her well when she sets out as the only female on an archaeological dig with her professor and three male fellow graduate students. When she finds the bone of a human hand, she believes her professor will finally take her seriously, as she feels he never listens to her. She also suspects that the only reason why she has been invited on this dig is due to his instructions to abide by gender equality when choosing the students to attend it.  She initially puts the bone back, tells her fellow students about it, and finally her professor. For the next nine days, the team finds more and more bones of what they believe is a woman skeleton. As they camp out, she tries to be one of the guys, drinking beer (which she hates) and eating goat that they cook themselves. But unlike her companions, she becomes fascinated by the female skeleton. She wants to know everything about this woman. She names her "Estrella" after the stars they can see in the beautiful night sky. She imagines that Estrella is a complete woman, where she feels that there are so many missing parts to herself. She tries to figure out what kind of clothes and jewelry Estrella wore and pictures her as having been far more beautiful than she herself is. Suddenly, the skull speaks to her: "You need to get a life.  Stop living through other people and just do your own thing." The next morning, the guys find Fiona sleeping in her cot with her arm embracing the skull.  But instead of thinking she's crazy, they see her as being daring and brave and as doing something that timid Fiona would never do. "That was pretty fucking badass," one student tells her. Another adds: "Didn't know you had it in you." Suddenly she is seen as someone who has guts and who has a sense of humor they didn't know she was capable of. Finally, Fiona has the courage to make her own decisions rather than abiding by everyone else's wishes for her.

"An Act Of Concealment" is another example of a woman who just does as she's told and does what society and those in her life expect her to do even though she often feels misunderstood and as an outsider. When she befriends a fellow male outsider, the story reaches a shocking conclusion that I didn't see coming from a mile away when I first picked up the story.

Yet as serious as the subject matter of many of these stories is regarding women being mistreated and feeling powerless,  Parrish's stories often have a subtle humor underlying them.  "Letters Of Love And Hate" is the perfect example of this. Protagonist Cammy J has trouble getting her articles about helping at-risk youths published. Even her father is out of touch with the points she tries to make. Parrish writes: "He grudgingly admired his daughter's growing confidence on the page. She was acquiring sass. He liked a sassy woman, in moderation." This last sentence is an excellent description of how society often regards women who show dissent either in writing or verbally: Be assertive. But not too much.

Cammy J decides to start a blog instead. She tries to do everything by the book. She follows people on Twitter who she thinks would be interested in reading her blog, and she reads up on how to promote herself on social media.  Finally, she puts up the link to her blog and asks people to comment. Here's an example of why I love Parrish's talent for humor: After unfolding the events for us, giving the facts of how Cammy J puts together her blog and her Twitter account and asks people to comment, she says: "She received two comments. One was from someone identifying himself as Ronald 123: 'You're a dingbat. Actually, you're probably worse, but I'm too nice a guy to say exactly what.'" I didn't expect that, and although I felt sorry for Cammy J who had all these expectations that people would embrace her initial blog post, I still had to laugh at how Parrish paints a realistic portrait of what often happens when we express our opinions on social media!

Ultimately, all of Parrish's characters endure as best as they can. They keep plugging along because they have to, and in doing so, they find new-found strength and a sense of identity they never knew was in them.  Many short story writers depict women, yet Parrish's stories stand out to me. She immediately draws us in, and we know that something profound is going to happen as soon as we meet the women in her stories. It could be a physical circumstance that shakes up their lives or it could just be a revolution from within. But either way, it will always be interesting, and we'll always feel changed when we reach the last line.

"By The Wayside" - A collection of short stories by Anne Leigh Parrish will be available from Unsolicited Press on February 8, 2017

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not Crying (Yet) - Just Simply Unable To Comprehend It

It's like that time in the early 1990's when I bought tickets to see an IMAX film, went to line up, and was told the viewing had just been canceled. I said: "Ok, so where do I go to get my money back?" The employee answered: "I will go ask my manager if you will be able to get your money back." "What??!!" was my natural response. "Of course, I can get my money back! I bought the tickets three minutes ago, and I'm surely not going to be charged for a movie I didn't see!" The employee didn't respond in any way that made sense, i.e., 'Oh, well of course you'll either get a rain check or a refund.' Instead he said, again: "Well I have to check with my manager to see if we can give you your money back." Again, I couldn't grasp the concept that this theater would force me to pay for a movie I didn't see! It just didn't make logical sense. Of course, I did get my money back, but the idea that the employee would even think for one second that I'd ACCEPT leaving the theater knowing I'd paid for a movie that I didn't see through no fault of my own or that the theater would think it was perfectly fine to do so was something my brain simply couldn't comprehend.

This is the feeling I have after seeing a quarter of the US population go to the polls to vote for Donald Trump. It doesn't make logical sense to me, and I can't wrap my brain around it. Surely after everyone heard him say that he grabs women by the pussy and that they let him do it because he's a celebrity, nobody in their right minds would vote for him! Equally disturbing is that after those comments became public, a former teen beauty pageant contestant said that Trump had barged into the teen contestants' dressing room while many were  half-dressed and topless. While they frantically grabbed their clothes to cover themselves up, he continued to enter the room and simply said: "Don't worry, girls. There's nothing here I haven't seen before!" What kind of example does it set for young girls and women of our country (and for the girls and women who live in countries where females are so oppressed, they have no rights at all and are abused and persecuted on a daily basis) to have such a person be in charge of what many consider the leader of the free world? Surely we don't want a president representing OUR country who has been recorded on tape making statements that prove how little regard he has for women and their rights? Correct?

As I said, the reality is that one quarter of Americans brought themselves to the polls to vote for Trump. This is 25% of our country. But 25% voted for Hillary Clinton who actually received more than 2 million more votes than Trump did. The added problem is that 50% of the population didn't vote at all. Trying to view our voting population as an optimist, at least the vast majority of people in our country couldn't bring themselves to vote for him knowing that this country's women have fought so hard for so many years for their freedom, only to see them being disrespected and even sexually assaulted by someone who could have the power to set them right back again.

Seems to me after hearing nothing but bigotry and sexism from Trump, even if you didn't like Hillary Clinton, it was imperative to go out and vote for her to ensure that we not let him gain the power to create laws that can hurt people and damage their lives when he harbors such prejudices for minorities, homosexuals, the disabled, and immigrants. Along with having  an utter lack of respect for women that has reached the extent of engaging in sexually predatory behavior.

Bottom line is, Trump did lose the popular vote, and by over 2 million votes which is a margin unprecedented in US history and exceeds the close margins in the elections of both President Kennedy and President Nixon. My first reaction to Trump winning the electoral college votes (even though this is not what the majority of individual people of this country actually wanted) was one of disbelief and confusion. Once I heard his comments on TV about "grabbing women's pussies" (adding that to the derogatory comments I've heard him say over the years, long before he ever ran for president, such as calling women "fat" and "ugly"), I just couldn't comprehend that these comments would not be a deal breaker for anyone who has a healthy respect for women. This is why those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton are "crybabies." It is because we fear the ways a man who is about to gain control over legal policies could hurt us when he holds this type of hatred for women. We're hoping that over the next four years, we will not be dealt something that we'll really have reason to cry about.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It's Perfect To Be A Messy Novelist

"I want to be decadent. I want to eat hot dogs and write novels instead of perfect short stories."

I remember writing this in my early twenties. I was a brand new writer, and I desperately wanted to get published. I worked as a volunteer for a literary magazine where my job was to organize the writers and prepare them to read at launch parties the magazine threw when they released each new issue. I'd also offered to emcee the events because I knew the publisher's girlfriend hated doing it. I'd never seen anyone as thrilled as she when she got the news she was off the hook! But even though I was official Emcee and named in the masthead, I couldn't actually get my own stories in the magazine! Each time I submitted, all I got were encouraging words to try again. I was a creative writing student, following advice from my teachers, and couldn't understand what I was doing wrong! Finally, I showed my brother my short stories, and he suggested I try a more traditional literary magazine, as he felt this one was wildly experimental.  I could have searched further, but instead, I decided to take a break from writing short stories and began work on my first novel. The thrill of seeing my own story in a magazine would have to wait.

When I sit down to write a short story, I often wind up writing something similar to a chapter of a novel. This is because I enjoy writing longer works where I can spend more quality time with my characters. I long to explore their needs, desires and growth. My characters' personal progress and evolution over time are what propel my books forward. However, when I write a short story, it is my "idea" that is first and foremost. This is difficult because I have to constantly come up with amazing ideas. Ray Bradbury did this better and more frequently than any other fiction writer. It is beyond me how he wrote so many short stories and came up with so many brilliant ideas. His mind was constantly filled with greatness! But when it came to his most famous novel, "Fahrenheit 451," I wasn't as impressed, and I feel he was better at the short story form.

In short stories, every single word must be carefully chosen to move the story forward. For me, that makes writing short stories feel more like business than fun!  In my literary novels, I can go wild. l can play with words, and I get to hang out with my characters because the length permits me to do so. I can go off on tangents and know that even if these tangents remain in the final edit, readers won't mind because they are in it for the long haul. My former writing teacher said that short stories are expected to be read in one sitting, but novels are read chapter by chapter, night after night. This permits more wandering around since readers expect that they will be putting the book down, then picking it up again, over and over, as opposed to everything being wrapped up neatly at the end of their sitting.

Maybe novels are truer to life than short stories are. Life is messy. Words aren't always perfectly chosen or perfectly executed. It's possible that novelists are more accepting of imperfection than short story writers. This could explain why certain writers prefer one format over the other. I've never expected life to be perfect, or rather, I've learned over the years that it is impossible to be perfect. My house, my writing, my cooking, and all aspects of my life, will never be perfect. I know others disagree with me. They're constantly gritting their teeth, comparing themselves to others who they assume are perfect. It's a disaster if they burn their cooking or have a less than pristine house when guests come over. I'd related to that kind of thinking when I was younger and when I was involved in the writing community, writing short stories that I expected to get published upon completion. But when I got frustrated with my pile of rejection letters that was getting closer and closer to 100, I sat down and expanded my favorite short stories into a novel. A few years later, I did the same thing and wrote another novel. Then years after that, with two independently-published novels under my belt, I began work on my current novel. I don't know why, but I am enjoying the process of writing this novel more than I have any of my others. People ask me, "So are you nearly done? When are you going to publish it?" But I'm not even thinking of that. "Not yet," I tell them. Because right now, I'm having way too much fun.

I've given up hot dogs since my twenties, but I still gel with the idea of being "decadent" and writing novels. I'm not saying I'm unambitious. Of course, I want to get my latest novel published. I'm also working on a couple of short stories (which started out as flash fiction stories but, of course, are now extending into longer pieces of fiction which may branch out into novels one day too), and I do want to submit them and try to get them published. But I feel the main reason to ever write fiction is to enjoy the process and not just what results at the end. Maybe that's the way life should be lived too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What If Anais Nin Was A Social Media Queen?

Social media has been good for Anais Nin! Twitter has facilitated a huge surge in her popularity due to her many quotes being tweeted on a nearly daily basis.  But what if social media existed in the 1930's? What if Anais, her lover Henry Miller, and his wife, June, all had the internet and their complex interactions were not recorded in letters but instead in Facebook statuses and Tweets?

The first magazine ever devoted to Anais Nin was called "Under the Sign of Pisces," which she described as "A Cafe In Space" because writers and readers could connect through reading the magazine which was the next best thing to meeting in person as they did in the cafes of Paris. I feel like the internet in general is a cafe in space because it's a place where people can "meet" and talk to each other regularly. But where does it exist? Technically, only in space.

After reading nearly every Anais Nin diary that exists, I'm convinced Anais would LOVE the internet! It would be her thing! But I also believe it would have added to her turbulence during those Miller/June years, because they'd have loved it too, and she would have to keep up with THEIR social media activity in addition to her own!

Henry's wife, June, lived in New York while Henry lived in Paris. Anais found June to be a fascinating person, and whenever June returned to Paris to visit Henry, she'd often spend time alone with Anais. Of course, June didn't know her husband was having a love affair with Anais. Regardless, June was a naturally flirtatious person and soon Anais was under June's spell as well.

Henry's apartment was not far from Anais and her husband Hugo's house at Louveciennes. By the way, Anais' husband, Hugo, would either not have been on social media at all or his involvement would have been very limited because he would have been way too busy with his job at the bank. As Anais said in "Henry and June," the brilliant 1990 indie film which dramatized their relationships: "You are even beginning to SMELL like the bank!" This physical separation between Henry and June would have taken on a different meaning if they had use of the internet. Even more so, the relationship between Anais and June. They would be internet buddies, and I believe their regular internet chats would have kept them in constant contact and made them closer than they ever were in real life. The internet would have ensured that they never lost touch as they did once June and Henry split up.

For Henry, social media would be his playground: thousands upon thousands of scantily clad to naked young women for him to not only look at but also to interact with. As much as Anais tried to accept Henry's life outside her own - not just with June but also in relation to his penchant for frequenting street prostitutes - Henry's social media activity would drive her crazy because it would be right in her face, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There'd be no end to her speculation about how many of these women whose Tweets he favorited, whose Facebook statuses he liked, and whom she could see chatting with him publicly would also be involved in his private life behind her back too. I can just imagine the subtweets:

Anais Nin @anaisensorcelled
Tomorrow I shall plunge myself face-down into my make-up palette. Surely, this is the look you prefer since clown faces are the only ones you follow.

As you can see above, Anais' Twitter handle would be "Anaisensorcelled." We all know "ensorcelled" was one of her favorite words and one which she used frequently in her diaries. She also would like the fact that it means "to enchant" or "to bewitch."  She'd be great at the selfie game (the pictures for this entry are what I surmise would be closest to the selfies Anais would take of herself and post. Just imagine one of her arms extended to take the selfie as opposed to hanging down at her side). Since Anais preferred mental connections with the men she was attracted to, she would keep her public account sexy, yet tasteful. She wouldn't post nudes, or near-naked pictures of herself in her bra and underwear. Anais was more of a "sexy-in-private" person. Although an extremely sexual person, she wouldn't have wanted to be DEFINED by her body. She would have identified herself as a writer first and foremost and would want to be treated that way. Having strange men post comments like: "Hey, chicky, I love your hot ass," would grate on her nerves.

While Anais would use social media to promote her writing, the internet would enable June to quit the dance hall forever and to start a lucrative business as a Cam Girl. June would not use her own name on Twitter as Anais did. She would drop her last name, "Miller," because she wouldn't want the men who were paying for her cam girl services to know too much about her. She'd simply be "June" with an xxoo after it for kisses and hugs to make her name look more cutesy and good for business.

                Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward and Uma Thurman in "Henry and June" film

But on Facebook, June would use her full real name because all of their Facebook accounts would be private, and they'd already personally know all their Facebook friends in real life. All these friends they connected with on Facebook wouldn't know of the affair between Anais and Henry nor would they have known that June was a Cam Girl. Anais would interact very little with Henry but would instead put her friendship with June front and center. Here is the Facebook status for Anais and June, posted the morning after they spent a night out on the town alone together on one of June's visits from New York to Louveciennes:

Feeling: Loved (imagine the happy face with smiling eyes and two hearts above the eyes and one under the face):

"Had a blissful time with June Miller last night!  I learned so much from her even though she thinks I am the teacher!  We talked until midnight!  We talked all about her wonderful husband, Henry, who is SO lucky to have her!  Dinner was amazing -- the Anjou was flowing, and I couldn't have asked for a more perfect evening if I tried!  Thank you, June! And thank you, Henry, for allowing me to "borrow" her!"

So, as I said, Anais would LOVE social media and would embrace it the same way she did all the voluminous letters she wrote to those she loved over the years. But I think it may just have changed the course of history. As I said earlier, I believe she and June would have never lost contact, especially through Facebook. She would never lose touch with Henry either. Because just by logging in, he would always be there.

The tradition of Anais Nin's Literary Journal "A Cafe In Space" is still alive! My essay: "Anais Nin - A Recipe for Immortality" is featured in its newest volume of the magazine, Volume 13, available in both Paperback and Kindle at Amazon.Com:

Friday, April 1, 2016

Finally - Dad. (Part 1)

I prefer to remember my dad the way he looked as a young man. The way he looked in the pictures I saw of him taken in the 1950's and 1960's. Not when I knew him when he had that wild, curly, 1970's hair that used to reach the roof of his car even though he was only 5'10." In the 1980's, he lost that 70's hair.  Not because of the cancer treatments he started in 1981 (oddly enough, he never lost his hair like the majority of patients do) but rather because the styles changed, just like the best things in life always do.

After he died in 1984, I took out his college graduation picture and made a conscious effort that any time I thought of him, I'd only think of how he looked in the 1950's and 1960's. Somehow, it made thinking about him less sad.

My father only walked this earth for 41 years, and I only knew him for about one decade of those if you count the years I was an old enough child to have a clear memory of him. A few decades later, he has become an almost mythical figure to me, and I have to rely a lot on what people older than I am can remember, and I'm always anxious to hear stories about him. Luckily, my relatives and his friends are always more than happy to share what they remember of him with me.

One of my favorites comes from my mother's first cousin, Carol. My mom is an only child who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and every summer to escape the City, she and my grandmother spent the entire summer in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with her my grandmother's sister who is Carol's mom. My grandfather joined them on weekends. When my mom and dad became serious, she brought him along on one of the visits to meet Carol and her sister, Barbara, who were like sisters to her. Carol told me about the first time she "almost" met my dad. She said she went out to her country backyard to meet him where he had climbed a tree and was just sitting at the top it, enjoying the country air. She told me that when she spotted him all the way up there, she thought: "Well, I guess we're not going to be meeting him today."

Even though my father had what many people would consider a short life, he did a lot in those 41 years. He was a Language Arts teacher for 17 years at Prall Intermediate School, I.S.27, on Staten Island, New York, and he was also a singer and songwriter. He enjoyed teaching and often brought in his song lyrics to have his students analyze them as assignments.  One of the projects he had done in the late 1960's or early 1970's was an album based on Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" poetry book. Whitman was considered pretty "out there" for his day so he self-published and paid for "Leaves of Grass'" first edition and even did most of the typesetting. So basically, Whitman joins the ranks of today's indie writers like myself (or on my bad days, I choose to think of it this way). What my father did with Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is kind of like what Kate Bush did years later when she wanted to use James Joyce's Molly Bloom monologue from his novel, "Ulysses," as lyrics for one of her new songs and wasn't granted permission. Instead, she wrote "The Sensual World"  and just changed the words, writing her own version of the original prose, keeping in line with the feeling of the words, which in the end is all that really matters - what feelings pieces of music bring to its listeners.  

After my father died, I went through every single loose leaf paper he had in his bedroom dresser drawer, and there were tons of them. It took me months to go through them all, but every weekend when my mom and brother were out with their respective friends, my 15 year old self grabbed another pile from his drawer, sat on my living room swivel chair in front of the TV, and read through every single word. When I read the lyrics based on Whitman's work, I hadn't yet read the original "Leaves of Grass" that they came from. As a grieving teen, I don't think I was really ready for it. It wouldn't have impacted me the way it did when I finally picked up the book several years later. When I read through "Leaves of Grass," I was amazed, and I could see what the appeal of the book was for my dad. It is a celebration of life. It was written for people who enjoy sitting at the top of trees all by themselves enjoying nature around them. I imagined my father reading Whitman in college and embracing his days as a young man, enjoying this earth while it was still his.

My father was a well-liked person because he accepted everyone as being the same as him. He felt a connection with others and with nature around him so I can easily understand his identifying with "Leaves of Grass." Below is an excerpt from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" which is part of "Leaves of Grass":

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

My dad wrote this song version of Whitman's "Song of Myself":

My dad wrote at least 9 songs based on "Leaves of Grass." Once I read the original book, I was happy it moved me as much as it moved him because there was now another reminder I could forever have of him because these reminders keep his memory alive to me on those days when I really miss him. My whole life has been a quest to recapture what I can remember of him. Whitman wrote:

“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.” 


Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is both a celebration of life and also a celebration of nature. He believed we should enjoy the little things in life and embrace the natural world that was given to us. His words are affirmation that every human being is connected to one another regardless of generation or even century of time.  He believed human life was carried on THROUGH nature because every generation walks the same green earth. He meant this figuratively AND literally, proclaiming that human beings once deceased eventually are "reborn" again through the growth of the grass beneath future generations' feet.  This passage below is simply beautiful and is one of my favorites from "Leaves of Grass": 

"What do you think has become of the young and old men? 

And what do you think has become of the women and children? 

They are alive and well somewhere, 
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, 
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the 
end to arrest it, 
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. 

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, 
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” 

That last line brings me comfort. I like to imagine my dad is in a happier place even though he can't be here physically with us. I know that I titled this blog entry "Part 1," and eventually I'll write a Part 2, but I have no idea when. Processing the loss of my dad has taken me a long time. In fact, it was not too long ago that I could finally display his school teacher picture in my house which is the picture I have that looks most like the way he looked during the years I knew him. So like I said, there will be a Part 2 one day. In the meantime, I, and hopefully now you, will celebrate Whitman.

Dad and Grandma in the 1970's

Monday, February 22, 2016

My Book Review Of Amy Koppelman's Latest Novel "Hesitation Wounds"

A couple of months ago, I spent the afternoon watching a new movie I'd known nothing about which was based on the novel "I Smile Back." Sarah Silverman played the lead role, and her performance, plus the script, completely drew me in.  I instantly became fascinated by the author of the book. This is how I discovered Amy Koppelman! My favorite authors are the ones who write in deceptively simple language about the everyday things we often overlook -- the tea kettle boiling; the wind chimes gently rocking in the breeze, etc. Yet underneath their simple words are the deepest, most potent, emotions few human beings have the guts to bring to the surface, let alone write about. My short list of these writers include diarist Anais Nin and novelist Banana Yoshimoto. They have been my favorites for years. I'm so excited to finally add a third writer to my club, and this is Amy Koppelman. Here is my book review of her latest novel, "Hesitation Wounds."

Hesitation Wounds” is the story of Dr. Susanna Seliger who treats patients with severe depression by administering shock treatment therapy. For many years, she has shuffled through life by keeping herself closed off and ignoring her emotions which is why this work suits her. She doesn't believe in talk therapy and doesn't want her patients to confide in her. She just wants to buzz their feelings out of them. But everything changes when she treats Jim for whom the shock treatments don't seem to work. Talking to Jim takes her out of her shell and, in turn, forces her to face her grief over her brother, Daniel, who died when she and Daniel were both teens. “Hesitation Wounds” is mostly a dialog between Suze and her late brother. Many times, it reads like a letter to him. Throughout the book, Suze recounts moments from their life together. Many memories are pleasant. She recalls the summer when they hung outdoors with their friends, listening to the boom box, lying down and staring into the black city sky:

It's the end of summer now. We are on our backs, arms and legs touching. We gaze at the moon. Margo thinks the moon is hanging especially low. It wants to shake your hand.”

But other times, the details of his tragic and somewhat reckless death creep through.

Her patient, Jim reminds her of Daniel. They both have similar builds and voices. Speaking of Jim elicits constant thoughts of death in her because he is suicidal. Just before he is about to receive another round of electric shock treatments which he has no faith will work, he asks her to tell him a story about what his life will be like six years from now. Koppelman's account through Suze of what a day in the life of a future, happily-adjusted, family man, Jim, will be like is beautiful and cinematic. It truly moved me, and I hope there will be a film version of “Hesitation Wounds” someday to see this passage unfold in pictures.

While most books depict grief by showing the event, having the mourner cry it out, completely traumatized, then describe them on the pathway to healing, Koppleman's portrayal of the grief experience is not like this.  Grieving is not interpreted as overblown and dramatic. It is simple and matter of fact. But it's the facts that people have the most trouble facing. Grief does not get better over time but rather you learn to function better. As Koppelman explains, every day you are reminded of the person you lost through the mundane things around you. She asks: “What would Dan think of cell phones?” This sentence hit home for me because my father died in 1984, and with every new technology that comes out, I'm reminded of him: “What would Dad think of laptops? Social media? The internet?” This is truly what grief is all about: Your thoughts on a daily basis. In Koppelman's stream-of-consciousness dialog to Daniel, she writes:

Things I forgot to ask: I forgot to ask you why you didn't like egg in your fried it was we began eating potato chips with ketchup, who your favorite Beatle was...”

Hesitation Wounds” reminds us that life is about the little things. Besides grief, it is about depression and the simpler things most of us take for granted but can cause a person suffering from depression to get completely bogged down by. Every movement, interaction and inner thought becomes a feat of near impossibility, leading to exhaustion. Suze's depression is primarily caused by many years of unresolved grief. Here is how Suze has learned to survive her crippling thoughts of grief:

I turn away. Memory is like this for me now. I can turn away from it. I repeat this thought out loud, as if the mere act of saying it, like an incantation, will transform the idea into reality. And because it's true. I can do this now.”

She stops and adds:

Most of the time.”

Because that's how you move forward from grief. You just choose to forget. You don't heal completely, but you learn to live.

To order Amy Koppelman's "Hesitation Wounds" go to

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Goodbye, Louise

On Labor Day, my co-worker, Louise, died after suffering for several months from a horrible illness. I haven't been able to cry about it or even truly process her loss in my mind yet. The only thing I've been sure of is that I need to write about it and to memorialize her in this blog.

Louise and I got off on the wrong foot in June 2000 when I first joined the company I am presently working for. We were both legal secretaries who type for attorneys. Back in 2000, we were still using cassette tapes that the attorneys recorded their voices on and then put the tapes in brown envelopes for us to listen to and type. During my first week, Louise would keep a basket of the tapes I had to do, and what was on the tapes was written on the outside of these envelopes. Of course, I tried to take the envelopes that had the things I wanted to do, like long letters where I could just daydream while typing them rather than taking motions that had 75 billion exhibits that had to be meticulously copied and then delivered to the courthouse. Louise noticed this and didn't appreciate it. "I like to pick and choose too!" she said sarcastically, meaning that since I was the "new kid on the block," I should just be happy to type everything that was in there. She was not happy with me and had no problem expressing it. After a few days of this, I said, "You obviously have a problem with me." You'd think I'd said, "You obviously need to be locked up in a mental institution where they throw away the key," because after our exchange, she refused to talk to me period. Not one word. Not a hello, a goodbye, or even a "thank you" one day when I found her glasses on the floor and had gotten down to pick them up to give them to her. This went on for a year, by the end of which, I had a dream that she and I were talking and became friends.  I woke up wishing for that so much but knowing that it would take a miracle for that dream to come true. But shortly after my dream, 911 happened.

Our office is one block from where the World Trade Center terrorist attacks took place. Some of my co-workers watched from our windows and saw people jumping off the Towers. One of my former co-workers, Sally, was so traumatized, she just ran out of our building and walked from our office on downtown Broadway all the way uptown past 101st Street. But Louise and I were both still on our way to work, and our buses turned around. I'll never forget how I felt when I saw smoke and flames coming out from the tops of those beloved Towers in the distance through my bus windows. Our office was uninhabitable for over a month, and when we visited it for the first time about three weeks after the attacks, I saw my sweater still draped over my desk chair, both of which were covered in dust. We realized we had to remain a little longer at our temporary office on Water Street and didn't even want to visit our office again because the electricity was still out and was being run by generators that would shut down the elevators by late afternoon. I knew that Louise was just as shocked and saddened by the Trade Center attacks as I was, so one morning in our Water Street office, I decided to just take a chance and say "Hello" to her. "Hi," she finally said back, her voice still shaken and slightly breathy. That was the moment that my dream came true, and we finally became friends.

Louise was an enigma to everyone at our office.  She was fiercely guarded about her personal life, both past and present, but because we used to see each other every day, she began giving me little glimpses into what her life had been and as it was now in the present.  For most of the years I'd known her, she was a single woman in her fifties and then sixties who lived alone with her parrot, "Scarlett." She never had any children but told me she had been married once and was now divorced for many years.  But even this simple fact was not common knowledge in our firm.  Even our prior boss (a male attorney who is now split from our firm but who had worked with Louise for many years) didn't know Louise had once been married. Several years ago, when she had fallen ill and was briefly hospitalized due to a perforated ulcer, he had answered the phone when her friend called to let us know. "Oh, Louise is in the hospital," he told one of my former co-workers. "Yes. Her partner called to let us know." "Her partner?" my co-worker asked, confused. "Yes," he said. "That lady who always calls here for her. I know that she lives alone, but that woman must be her partner! Have you ever heard her speak about any man since she's worked here?" No, I guess she hadn't to him. But to me, she had.

In addition to her divorce, that surprisingly I seemed to be one of the only people to know about, not only did she have a crush on actor Sean Connery, but she often stayed up late at night to watch reruns of "Married With Children" because "young" Al Bundy reminded her of her ex-husband. "Oh, I've seen that actor in other things today," she'd say, "But now he looks very different. I'm talking about young Al Bundy. I love to stay up late and watch him." Her expression softened when she spoke about him. She spoke about "Al" a lot.

Besides looking just like Al Bundy, she told me that her ex-husband used to enjoy going to the racetrack a lot, and the two of them had gone there often and even saw Secretariat win the Triple Crown at Belmont in 1973. She said it was such a thrill to have been there in person! She and I even had a racetrack-oriented joke between us: We all had been having trouble with our computers, and one afternoon, a man named Dan who worked for the computer company, "Corstar," had called about coming to fix them. One of the attorneys named Ed took the phone message and had written down: "Corstar's Dan called." Louise brought me the note from the bulletin board and said, "Look at this. Ed took a phone message, and he wrote 'Corstar's Dan!' I mean, who called us anyway? A racehorse? That's how they name racehorses, you know! Sometimes they use the horse's father's name and then pair it with the name of the horse. That's what this looks like - Corstar's Dan - a racehorse!"  She always came up with silly things like this to ease the tension of our law office and to make me laugh.

Louise was thin and tall, always wore plain, comfortable pants and t-shirts, and wore her long brown hair wrapped up in a simple bun. The only make-up she used was concealer, and she had tube after tube of it in all different shades in her work drawer.  But again, because she said very little about herself, nobody would have expected how much into hairstyles she was. "I love to go to the beauty supply shop at lunchtime," she told me one afternoon. "When I was younger, I was really into hairstyles." She'd watch hairstyle shows on TV and give me pointers on how to keep my own long hair tangle-free.  "The key is to run your fingers through it first, and separate the sections before you use the comb." Thinking about hairstyling, I had gotten her to watch one of my favorite TV shows, "Mad Men," and she liked it and watched the entire Season 1 but lamented: "That Peggy, always wearing her hair in a ponytail! This is supposed to take place in 1960, right? Women did NOT wear their hair in ponytails in 1960!" I explained to her that was the point of Peggy's character in Season 1. She was supposed to be awkward and out-of-style. But Louise was always set in her ways, and she seemed fixated on the idea that they should not have had Peggy's character wearing a ponytail in 1960. I believe that's why she wouldn't continue onto Season 2.

Sometimes, I liked to imagine what Louise had been like as a young woman in the late 1960's through the 1970's. I pictured her lounging around in her apartment, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. She told me that back then, she woke up every morning and immediately grabbed for a cigarette, smoked it, then took an aspirin, washing it down with a cup of coffee.  In those days, she worked for a law firm she spoke very highly of. I believe it was there that she met the man who I think was probably the love of her life. Again, she only told me snippets, but apparently she had what she described as a secret relationship with one of male partners at the firm, and she told me that part of the thrill was all the "sneaking around" - the idea that people could only guess at what their actual relationship was, but nobody really knew. But "NG," she would say to me, meaning, "No Good!" She said that these things always ended badly, but at the time.....

"I tell you this because you and I have been friends for a long time, right?" So many things Louise said to me were prefaced like this. She was a worrywart who always had a lot of concerns regarding procedures at work and the way she perceived people were treating her. One former attorney she worked with once told me: "Louise is constantly worrying about nonsense!" She and I had a lot of chats about things that bothered us. We always talked about our work, what the attorneys thought about our work, and what our other co-workers thought about us. Sometimes, she'd obsess on something that happened during the day and kept on bringing it up to me again at various times, over and over, reiterating things like: "When I told her she came back late for lunch, I was just joking. I didn't mean to accuse her of coming back late for lunch, it was just a joke. It was because she came back carrying all these bags, saying I've discovered Chambers Street! So I told her she was late. But I didn't mean to say she had done anything wrong by shopping and coming back a few minutes late." Sometimes I vented to her about other people too. She always listened, and when I'd apologize later for my somewhat angry rants, she'd say: "Listen, we're friends. We help each other out."

She often took me even further into her confidence. A few years ago, we sat together during our office Christmas party, and I believe she took the opportunity that I'd had a little too much to drink to tell me a strange story about how years ago, one of her female friends came back to her apartment and made a pass at her. She said she told the woman she was NOT interested in her and to please not do that again. I think she believed I wouldn't remember this story the next day, but even when I'm very drunk, I always remember everything, and I'm always in control of what I'm doing. Of course that didn't prevent me from dropping my pizza bagel onto the floor at the ferry station on my way home from the party. A woman in line behind me ordered the man working behind the counter to get me another one since I'd dropped it. The worker was annoyed, looked me in the eye, and asked, "Was it MY fault that this happened? Or was it YOURS?" "Mine?" I answered feebly. But the woman didn't care, she still ordered the worker to give me another pizza pretzel. I wish I had this woman to walk around with me as my staunch supporter on a daily basis!

Louise had been extremely healthy for many years and had the best attendance out of everyone in our office. Even after her perforated ulcer surgery, she returned to work after a mere three weeks when most people who had that same surgery would have taken at least six. She often told us that we were really her family because outside of the office, she had no family (she and her sister were estranged, and she had only a handful of friends).  I think that's why she always wanted to be at work - because it was lonely at home, and she wanted to be with "her family."

Last winter, she left work after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. She had treatment and was in and out of the hospital. One afternoon, she called the office, and I answered it. "I'm so glad you answered and that I got to talk to you!" she said as if she realized this would be our last conversation. I told her how I always think of her when I watch Pat and Jamie on NY1 in the mornings because we both always watched them before we left our house for work, and she and I used to joke about their banter and just about them in general. Then her voice turned serious, and she said, "I wanted to make sure I told you this: That all these little things that used to concern us during the day, all these worries about work and people and all the little problems we used to worry about? Well listen, they just don't matter. Nothing that gets us upset during the day is important. Try not to let those things bother you at all, because after all, it's just not worth it."

Obviously, it's hard to lose a family member, any relative or close friend, but there's something different about losing someone who you've seen almost every day for the past fifteen years that is a special kind of loss that just breaks your heart. They're a part of your everyday routine, and that brings you comfort. It's scary when they go. You just expect them to always be there.