Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 11

2001 was a lousy year for me. I’d worked the first half of the year as a personal assistant to an unreasonable (and unreasonably wealthy) woman, and quit in desperation in June, thinking I’d get a new job quickly. Instead I spent the summer temping, or trying to. Going from agency to agency to take their tests, interview, answer the same questions, and not getting jobs.

In August I got to be a PA on a film, shot in SoHo. We had a production office in one of the Towers, on the 94th floor. I went to and from the home base on 23rd Street to the World Trade Center, each time showing ID, getting a little photo taken, and taking two sets of elevators to drop something off to Ingaborg, our production assistant. I never actually ran into Ingaborg, and I was always glad; everyone said she was cranky.

Each time I went into the office in the tower, I took a little time to look out the window, at the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island and the ocean beyond. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring; it made me feel small. I’d lean on the square desk to chat with the receptionist; I’d grab some hard candy from the purple dish on the square side table; I’d sit in the brown leather square chair, scuff my shoes on the light brown industrial-strength carpet.

The movie had wrapped by September 11, and I was asleep in bed when the attack happened. My roommate called and told me to turn on the TV; stupidly, I asked, “What channel?” After the first tower fell I called my mom and told her to do the same thing. When she asked, “What channel?” I said, “It doesn’t matter.” I told her what had happened, and said, “and one tower has fallen. There’s only one tower of the World Trade Center standing.” That’s when I felt some hysteria creep in, and said, “But I’ve been unemployed all summer, and I’m sitting here on my bed watching it on TV!” And for the first time in four months, I was glad to be unemployed.

After the second tower fell I walked to the Red Cross Center on Amsterdam; there was a line at least a hundred deep to donate blood. I’m O-Negative; surely they would need my blood! But they had no capacity for all the people who’d shown up. They showed us into an auditorium for a briefing on volunteering, and we all signed up. I never got a phone call.

After the briefing I started walking downtown, toward the smoke. It took a couple of days for the stench of burning metal and rubber and bodies—the fire that didn’t die until November—to make it to the Upper West Side, but I smelled it that day when I got to Franklin Street, which was the furthest point south civilians were allowed. I pictured, as I walked, the square desk, the chairs, the carpet of our production office. I pictured the candy dish, fixating on wondering if it was crushed or burned or just fell. I fixated on these little things in order not to picture the receptionist, whose name I never learned. Or Ingaborg.

At Franklin Street there was a large crowd gathered, gaping at the crystal blue sky, nothing remaining but a puff of light brown smoke. The wind kicked up a few times and blew rough little particles in our faces. “That’s asbestos, folks,” the policeman said. “You’re gonna want to get out of here.” When I hear of the Zadroga bill, the huge number of health problems suffered by the first responders, I think back to that policeman and I’m glad he shooed us away. I hope he isn’t one of the ones suffering.

By this time the subways were running again, and, exhausted from my five-mile walk downtown, I took it back home. The cars were silent, people staring blankly. I got above ground, and by now the signs were out: “pray for our nation,” “God bless America,” “Candlelight service tonight.” People were out walking, like it was a holiday, but through the streets too, mixing with the traffic. Everyone looked dazed. Some stores had a TV or radio set up out front, and people gathered in front of them. It was a community of strangers who suddenly needed each other.

The Missing signs came out the next day, pictures of people when they were alive and happy and living the lives that ended so abruptly. They stayed up until mid-November; eventually the weather took them down. Ingaborg was on one of those signs.

I got a job two months later basically across the street from what was by then Ground Zero. Every morning I walked past the church that served as a rest station and a memorial, with more signs fixed to the fence. These signs didn’t say “Missing,” though; they said “In Memory of.” The dust had been cleaned from some places, but not others; there was a bicycle chained to a street post, decorated with flowers; probably from a delivery man. The fires were still burning underground.

I don’t pretend to be affected any more than anyone else by this tragedy; I wasn’t down there when it happened, I didn’t dodge falling debris or run for my life. I lost someone I knew only by notes and other people’s comments. And yet every September 11 I feel it so very deeply. I look for the names I saw on those signs, I read survivors’ and families’ stories. And I cry.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Days one and two....

Sirenland, Day One…

Arrived in Rome yesterday at 8 a.m., which for me was sometime in the middle of the night. 3 a.m.? They hadn’t turned their clocks ahead yet (they did the very next day), so yes, 3 a.m. I’d slept about two hours total on the flight, and frankly was grateful for that much. So I went to the hotel and left my baggage and went out for some sightseeing. Rome is really easy to navigate, if you can follow the map. One street name changes abruptly into another, and one side street off an avenue has a different name than the one going off the other side. But I made it to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s. I only sat down a couple of times because I knew that once I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start again. And I only had gelato once.

It was a gorgeous day—just beautiful, probably high fifties/low sixties. It was Saturday, so the crowds were amazing. I didn’t even try to get into St. Peter’s because the line was so long, and you had to go through metal detectors first. Had it been my first stop, I probably would have, but by then I was wiped out. I made it until 3 pm and went to the metro (I’d crossed Rome by then) and got back to my hotel, intending to sleep 3 hours and then go out again. Well, the alarm went off—I do remember hearing it—but I didn’t get up until 9. And then I was starving. So I went to a trattoria about 3 blocks away, ate too much dinner (but it was so good!) and went back, took a Tylenol PM to make sure I got to sleep on local time, and then went to bed and slept again. Nice. Today, day two, I don’t feel jet lagged at all—a first for a European trip.

This morning I went to Termini Station to get the train to Naples. I had ordered my ticket online, but the machine wouldn’t print one out, so I went to the ticket booth to get it printed. I showed the ticket to a woman at the counter and she stared and stared and stared. “This date,” she said. “Three-twenty-seven-eleven?” I freaked out a bit—was today not the 27th?—“We write the date different here in Italy. We write month first.” Okay. Right. I nodded, but she seemed mad. So she kept staring at the printout. “You pay in dollars?” she asked. I nod. That’s all I could do, because you know, it was online. She says, “You are in Italy. We use the euro.” I stared at her some more. In situations like this I find it best not to attempt a language I am less than fluent in, lest things get lost in translation on my end. She huffed out of her seat over to a supervisor, and I’m thinking, oh crap, did I waste $86 buying this online? She huffed back and handed me a ticket, which her supervisor helpfully printed out for her. The lady seemed quite mad at me, but she said, “Is okay.” And I got on.

I met with a fellow attendee, Ellen, and her husband Fred. We didn’t know quite where to go, so we got onto the first car and wondered if we had assigned seating, if we should put our bags above our heads, or what. A woman came onto the train to show us the baggage area to put the bags, and we said okay. Then a conductor rushed over and tried to speak with Fred, who doesn’t speak a word of Italian. I heard him try Italian and then Spanish, so I rushed over and said, “Yo hablo espanol!” Because, you know, that’s a language I am fluent in. He gestured at the woman who’d left and said, “Que miren sus maletas. Ella se les va a quitar. Es gitana.” HUH WHA? “Ella nos va a robar?” I said. He nodded. He said that once the train got moving it was safe to leave the bags there, but before it left she was counting on us going to our seats where we couldn’t see them, and then she’d take them. Nice to know. Fred sat right next to the door and watched the bags until we left.

And we got to Naples, where we were met by a driver and whisked to his Mercedes (we spent about 3 minutes total in Naples) and driven along some incredibly windy roads to Positano.

Positano is incredible. It’s a bit like Sorrento, except much steeper. It’s cut into the side of the mountain, which seems taller than the Rockies, at least those around our house, and it’s so steep that the roads have to be cut into the side in hairpin turns to go up and down. They warned us to take Dramamine. I didn’t, because I don’t often have that problem (and the resulting sleepiness isn’t worth it…maybe I would have felt differently had I thrown up. Actually, my car-mates would have felt differently had I thrown up.); I just got very sleepy toward the end.

So I got here and checked into my room, which is a junior suite, spacious, tiled with white and painted ceramic tile on the floor, a white bedspread and a Marie-Antoinette mini-canopy (just at the center of the head of the bed, with the curtain extending down from the ceiling) and a couch and chairs and a luxurious bathroom with jetted tub and, best of all, a little balcony facing the bay. I can see kids playing on the black-sand beaches (not going in the water; it’s too chilly) and the boats on the water and a big island off in the distance. Pretty incredible.

I took a walk down through the tourist center to get lunch (our first official event isn’t until 5, and that’s yoga; dinner isn’t until 8), got a fantastic sandwich at a hole-in-the-wall deli-type place. I wanted some fruit but the prices were abominable, like 2.40 euros per apple. So I left. At the following deli the prices were the same, and suddenly it dawned on me, the price was per kilo, not per piece. I asked the proprietor to be sure, and yep, that was the case. Happy to find that my Italian is actually not atrocious. It’s not great, but I’m communicating! Yay!

The vista from below is quite incredible, too. It’s one thing to look at these towns from pictures, looking at the buildings built into the side of a mountain; it’s another to look up at them from the beach, seeing rock jutting out from the sides of houses. Very, very cool. The mountains seem to be higher than Mt. Ogden, but that might just be because we’re in them, from the bottom up.

We had a dinner with everyone, in the dining room that has about two dozen chandeliers made up of tea light candles, all lit. It must take several workers to light them all. Seafood risotto as the primo, fish with a lemon-butter sauce and grilled tomatoes as the secondo, and crème brulee for the dessert (though mine was overcooked, darn it). There was no option for chicken or veal.

A postscript to day one: Ellen and Fred survived the gitana, but her wallet was stolen when she went to lunch and left her bag across the back of her chair. In her defense, they had just flown in from San Diego, gotten an hour of sleep, and gone straight to Naples and then to Positano, so they’d been traveling about 30 hours at that point. Unfortunately the thieves got her driver’s license, 4 credit cards and $1000 cash.

Day Two

The first day of the real workshopping. We had a free breakfast, which was spectacular: all kinds of fruits, fresh homemade ricotta, other cheeses, pastries, eggs if you want them, juices. And looking over the bay, wow oh wow. After breakfast we went into a salon room and started talking about the first short story. We started out awkwardly, because we don’t know each other and don’t know how everyone will react to workshopping etc., but quickly got comfortable. And Dani Shapiro, my teacher, is really incredible. She put into words a lot of things I have felt while writing but couldn’t quite put my finger on, and things I had felt while reading Ryan’s piece that again I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Several of us went down to the seaside for lunch. I was good and had a salad. Well, a Caprese salad with mozzarella, so maybe that’s not that good, but I wasn’t hungry because of the large breakfast. I also forewent dessert, just to brag. (I’m going to go crazy enough in the days to come.) Then we had a group yoga/meditation session (heavier on meditation than yoga) and then I ran half an hour on the treadmill. Now we have free time before a group discussion at 6 pm. I have classical music going on the speakers and the doors open to hear the sea outside and the intermittent rain. Sigh.

I guess I need to go write something real now.

After dinner now.

Later in the afternoon, we had a discussion about publishing with the teachers of the conference and the Sirenland Fellow for 2011, Karen Thompson Walker, who just sold her first novel to Random House. Google her. You will be impressed. She is in my workshop group, and will be workshopping the first 25 pages of the novel, because it just sold and she’ll have to do some rewrites. I actually feel quite fortunate to be in her group and get a sneak peek!

Several of us then took a bus ride up to a rather famous restaurant, Il Ritrovo. You can take steps up, but I believe it would take 45 minutes at least, going vertically the whole way. The restaurant pays for the car service to and from—it’s in their best interest to do so—and unfortunately one of our group members got severely car sick (did NOT throw up, thank heaven, but didn’t eat a thing and left early) from the hairpin turns up and up and up. I kind of wish I had been there during the day, just for the view. Ah well. I had a fabulous pasta dish with a light cream sauce (sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not!) and mushrooms and then nibbles from the guy who got the 4-course meal. The waiter was excited to find out we were Sirenlanders, because at least one group from Sirenland comes up every year. He kept loading us with extra food, too: Italian cookies, extra cake, extra pasta, extra wine. I guess he might have felt bad that Pete kept getting food from his courses and the rest of us only had pasta, and felt like we all had to eat all the time. Fun stuff. He also asked us to sign his guest book, and proudly pointed out the page signed by Bruce Springsteen. All right, that will do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


  Okay, time to check in again. Because something has happened.

I got some pretty great news in December. I applied to a writers’ conference called Sirenland, held at a gorgeous hotel (Le Sireneuse) in Positano, Italy (Amalfi Coast!) once a year, thrown by the editors of the short story magazine One Story. Prestigious writers teach workshops, and they open it to only 20 writers: 10 fiction, 10 nonfiction. I found out about this in October, shortly before their deadline, and decided to apply. I didn’t tell a lot of people about it, because again, they only accept 10 fiction writers...what were the odds? So I applied and then tried to put it out of my head. I was mostly successful. Sometimes it popped up, reminding me, You haven’t don’t know the status of your application...ten fiction writers...330 “likes” on Facebook.... And then I put it out of my head again. I’m not superstitious, most of the time, but it never hurts to knock on wood and throw salt over your shoulder and avoid black cats and do what you can not to jinx something. I am not superstitious. I promise. I subscribe to One Story, and in one of their issues they included a postcard with a great view of Positano. I gently set it aside—where I could see it, but where it wouldn’t taunt me. (website:
They said we’d hear by the end of December, so I decided not to think about it as soon as I went home for Christmas, the 18th. On the 21st I visited my grandpa in the nursing home (he has since returned to his own home, and he’s happy) and started singing along with the 93-year-old blind woman who was playing Christmas carols on the piano. My grandma said, “Would you put on a show here?” I said sure. Now, ordinarily, I’m pretty reticent about singing in front of people. (I’m insecure, living in New York where so many people have dedicated their lives to their voice lessons and singing, some making it and some not. I haven’t done that, have no intention of doing that, but I took about 10 years of voice lessons. But I don’t want to be compared to the professionals.) But...well, at a nursing home the residents are old and there’s not a lot to do. They’re not going to be sitting there judging me, if you know what I mean. And I knew it would make both Grandma and Grandpa very happy.

So Grandma calls the nursing home recreation director over and introduces me and says, “Kathy would like to put on a show for us!” (“would like to” was a little too strong, but I didn’t correct her.) The woman got this look on her face, and said, “I’ll be right back!” She zipped away, then zipped back. “Could you do it tonight? We’re having our Christmas party and the lady doing our show canceled.”
Again, if this had been in New York, it would have given me serious pause. For all you know, the residents of the nursing homes were professional singers themselves, and they could heckle you and shake their canes at your lack of breath control or incorrect vibrato technique. But I was in a small town in Utah. No guarantee of no professional singers in the audience, but I was more willing to take that chance. “Sure,” I said.
So my mom and I went home and pulled out a ton of Christmas music, ran through it on the piano (she played) and I wrote up a bit of a program. That night we went to the nursing home party. I dressed in my green sweater with a festive-if-slightly-crumbly red and gold ribbon tied around my waist. Kathleen, the coordinator, stood at the microphone and introduced me, and I walked up there, confident. Sparkly. My mom took her place at the piano. And right before I began, as my mom played the intro to “Silent Night,” Kathleen went to the corner and shouted, “Dessert is served!”

Walkers creaked, wheelchairs squeaked, and lots of people oohed over the desserts. They weren’t spectacular, but I imagine they were nicer than what they usually serve there in the nursing home, so I can’t be upset. It was interesting, though, trying to give a Christmas program when half of the room was paying attention and the other half was far more interested in examining and talking about their white cake with crushed candy cane frosting. Certainly no worries of heckling.

I did my program. There was something comforting in the fact that half of the room simply didn’t care. My grandma and grandpa cared enough for everyone.  Even if Grandma was very annoyed that they'd served desserts at the same time, no one could have touched the smiles on their faces. And that made me happy. At the end of the program I sat back at their table, and my grandma hugged me and said, “They could have waited for the desserts!”

So I was feeling good about doing a nice thing for them when I got home. I went to look at email, with no expectations whatsoever, and saw one with the subject line: “Welcome to Sirenland.”
Could it be?? I mean, it sounded like an acceptance from that—but what if it’s a cruel joke, and you open it and the message says “...fandom!” (“You didn’t get in, but don’t worry, you can now be a fan, and you'll always have this connection...”)
But when I opened it, they meant it. “You’ve been accepted to Sirenland 2011. Competition was fierce.” Something like that. MY REWARD FOR BEING THE NURSING HOME CHRISTMAS PROGRAM! I shrieked and ran upstairs and told my mom. I hadn’t mentioned to her that I’d even applied (because too many times I’ve applied to something, talked about it for days, and then had to say, “No, I didn’t get it” when people follow up—really, people, shouldn’t my sudden silence tell you something?) so first I had to explain what it was, and then hop up and down for a while because I was excited. And my mom was so excited that it took about twenty seconds for her to ask how much it was going to cost me.

So I’m preparing for the conference. I got my flight over (with frequent flier miles!!) and a hotel in Rome for one night before and one night after. I’m finishing some writing to send in for the workshops. I’m practicing my yoga, because they’re bringing in a yoga teacher in the afternoons. (when I found out they were bringing in yoga, on top of everything else, I realized that when it's time to go home I will cry like a small child.) And I am thrilled about it.
So maybe saying “much has happened” is an exaggeration. But one big good thing happened, and in my world, that is the same thing. I got a new digital camera for Christmas so I can take better pictures! I’d better look at the manual.
If anyone is wondering: si, parlo italiano, ma ho bisogno di pratticarlo. Molto bisogno.

That’s all for this entry. Until next time.

A postscript: Does anyone else find Jane Seymour’s “open heart collection” from the Kay’s Jewelers commercial really unbearably ugly? Seriously, if a boyfriend or husband gave me that, I’d have to rethink some things.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A post! an actual post! Go Yankees...

Hi all,

Well, a burst of creativity has hit me. It didn't hit me when I wrote that last post, but maybe early September. I was trying hard--in my head, at least--to finish my book by the end of the summer. And yet every time I pulled it up on the computer, I just couldn't...write...anything. It was very sad. And then by some crazy miracle, at the *end* of the summer, just to make sure I couldn't actually complete it in the summer, the creativity set in. I've been writing furiously since then and...the end is in sight. Another couple of small hurdles, I think, Yay. (and for the question weighing heavily on EVERYONE'S mind: close third. Had to be.) And it's one of the reasons I haven't blogged: I really am abusing my wrists and some nights they scream, all my exercises notwithstanding.

So what to talk about? Chilean miners? Facebook movie? Screenwriting? None of the above?

I just read another blogger's post that said you shouldn't blog about (a) your writing or (b) yourself. No one wants to read it. Well, hmm. I don't live a crazy life of adventure, and the few developments with one of my screenplays (and there are some!) are best kept private for now. I don't want to jinx anything. So what can I post about? The Yankees?

I got limited season tickets for this year, and I got to go to 11 regular games (plus a few additional that I bought) and that

side note: why does my "autosave" keep failing?

Anyway. My season tickets were a fantastic investment. A great time. I have the drill down, which gate to enter, how to exit quickly and with a minimum of crowd-fighting, where to buy the hot dogs. Yes, reader, I eat them. I know it's appalling. So the regular season is over, but I also got first dibs on buying ALDS and ALCS tickets! And in half an hour, I can purchase (still-not-definite) World Series tickets! I have a timer set on my computer so that my limited attention span and short-term-memory will both be reined in. So I went to the first-home-game ALDS (good thing, since they only played one--a sweep!) and on Monday will go to first-home-game ALCS. I am nervous about Texas, I admit. They have Cliff Lee, and Cliff Lee seems to be the Yankees' daddy. (Pedro Martinez weeps)

Anyway. Let me spice this up a little bit with an amusing story (or so I thought, as did my friend Peggy) from the ALDS game.

I got tickets for the third tier. Exciting, as I've never sat that low before. (I'm poor!) But it turned out that we were in the *last* row of the third tier. Well, the seats were still fine. Off the third base line, which was a completely different perspective from my season seat. But after a little mental adjust, all was well. We also found ourselves right in a wind gust. The stadium is ventilated with large openings in the outer wall and one happened to be right behind and above us. I think my leather jacket and scarf would have been fine without the wind, but with the wind it was really chilly. Every time the wind actually came in, it was downright cold. Jeans are not great protection against wind, by the way. But the excitement carried us through. The wind, however, plays a part in this story.

We sat in front of two (separate) pairs of friends: two guys and two women. The women kicked the story off because they'd gotten garlic fries, which should really be renamed HOLY CRAP THEY'RE GARLICKY fries. They had a few each and quickly realized they couldn't handle any more. So, kickstarting a multi-row camaraderie, they offered them around. I had a few, had the aforementioned HOLY CRAP reaction; Peggy had a few, to the same; the guys had a few. Guy #1 then went to buy a soda and some peanuts, and since we'd broken the ice, he started offering us peanuts. Raw peanuts aren't my favorite, so I only took a couple. Peggy took a couple more. We ate peacefully (got nachos, too, which were disgusting...and yet we ate them. Happily we did not get sick.), enjoyed the game. Five innings pass, during which the Yankees play very well. Victory is in the air.

Then there's a commotion two rows down. There are 2 couples, one in their mid-twenties and the other in their mid-forties. The woman of the mid-twenties couple, attractive and very Bronx, is angry, standing and yelling at Peanut Guy. What's happened? Well, peanut detritus is all over her back. She's furious. I mean, furious. Peanut Guy apologizes profusely, but it's not good enough. She continues yelling. And then her Drunk Friend gets into the action. Drunk Friend also has some peanut detritus on her back and in her hair, and absolutely will not accept any apologies or explanation. Perhaps he wasnt' groveling enough? Drunk Friend stands, starts pointing her long, fake, Yankees-painted fingernails in Peanut Guy's face. Her repertoire of phrases consists mainly of two: "Grow up!" and "Be a man!" with the occasional "Asshole!" thrown in. After not too long, Peanut Guy is sick of this woman and her Yankee claws, and starts mocking her. She huffs up the stairs and leaves. For a moment. So Peggy and I are laughing hysterically, and I point out that we've gotten peanut detritus on Peanut Guy, too. She leans forward and mentions that to him--just as Yankee Claw Drunk Lady comes back down the stairs. "Oh no!" he screams. "I've got peanut shit on me, too! I'm going to die!" And just as YCDL seems to have a rather limited repertoire of phrases, he switches into that mode, too. He's *yelling* this, over and over, and writhing and pretending to cry. YCDL is more angry and huffs up the stairs. This time, her husband decides to go after her. As we're on the last row, I hear their conversation. (Why can no one go past two phrases in this story?) "We're going now." "Relax." "We're leaving." "Relax." "Let's go." "It's the sixth inning! Relax!"

Peanut Guy disappears for a while. YCDL goes back to her seat. And Peanut Guy returns with FOUR bags of peanuts, which he hands out--to me and Peggy, to the six-year-old boy and his dad next to us, to the Garlic Fries people, and he offers a bag to YCDL. And Peanut Guy encourages us to get peanut crap on him. The six-year-old naturally takes him up on this inviatation, crushing his peanut shells and blowing them onto Peanut Guy; setting peanuts on Peanut Guy's head; placing crushed peanuts in Peanut Guy's hoodie. Peanut Guy is having the best time of his life, I think, shouting about how he's melting and going to die because people got peanuts on him.

Final straw for YCDL, who picks up one-two-three-FOUR empty beer cups, takes her Young Bronx Friend with her, and the two depart...for the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar. Their husbands remain. Peanut Guy says to his friend, "Look at 'em. They've never been happier in their lives." And that might have been true. Peanut Guy hands them a bag of peanuts, which they gratefully accept. Husbands and Peanut Guy share phone numbers and a promise to go out for a beer some time.

After YCDL and YBF leave, no more drama. Phil Hughes pitches 7 shutout innings, Kerry Woods allows only one hit, and the Yankees sweep the division series.

May my ALCS ticket (Monday!) provide as much satisfaction!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As part of my goal to finish this book by the end of the summer (still technically a possibility, but right now not looking too likely) I have been saving my writing energies for the book, rather than a blog. How do those daily bloggers DO IT? Some of them don't write anything else and therefore can pour all their energies into their blog, but some are prolific novelists, screenwriters, TV boggles the mind. I seem not to be too capable of multi-tasking. Which is interesting, because I have "multi-tasking" on my resume. (Everybody does! It's required!)

Okay, the thing that stimulated this post. I have noted with interest the proliferation of readers of the Stieg Larsson books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. I first read about these books about a year ago, with rave reviews. I have seen many, many people on the subway reading this book. (When multiple subway readers have the same book, you know it's a phenomenon. See: Harry Potter, Twilight.) It's now in magazines, newspapers, was made into a foreign language film and is being made into an English-language film (possibly with Brad Pitt. One word: miscasting.)

I picked up a copy of the first book about a year ago, right before heading on a trip. I had a B&N gift card, and wanted something really good. (I used to be a huge book buyer, but space and money constraints have made me more cautious of late. No more buying books... that aren't *really good*.)

Reader, I couldn't finish it.

I am not squeamish. I grew up in a doctor's household, and gross medical tales at the dinner table were the norm. Our family now has 2 dermatologists and a periodontist, so the gross tales have multiplied. And I love them. I don't mind gory TV, pictures of open, ulcerated, weeping sores...rashes and gashes...broken The only kind of surgeries I can't watch on TV are surgeries I've actually had--I saw Little Shop of Horrors shortly after having my 12-year molars removed and couldn't do the Steve Martin dentist scene (my periodontist brother now dresses up as that dentist for Halloween); I saw Minority Report shortly after one of my many Lasiks and couldn't watch the eye surgery stuff. But gore doesn't bother me. (Little g- gore. Actually, Al Gore doesn't really bother me, either.)

Here's what bothered me: unmitigated sexual violence. It turns out that the original title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. I think the original title explains it perfectly. There are lots, lots, lots of men who hate women in this book, and all of them take it out on the women in the book. Lisbeth Salander is a powerful woman...after she is raped (conventionally and anally, sorry to be graphic) and tortured by a man in power over her. Really, Reader, after reading this scene, I pictured an author completely turned on by what he was writing, writing it for no purpose than to get himself off. It's titillating, it's graphic, it's violent, it's mysoginistic. Woo hoo! Wow, how deep and graphic and horrible can I go? How badly can I shock? How can I best turn myself on?

And then Lisbeth gets back at the rapist! Woo hoo! She Tazes the tormentor and gives him a giant body tattoo, something like "I am a misogynistic rapist pig." (I don't have the book with me, so this may be slightly wrong.) Now I picture the author saying, But Lisbeth won't take it! She's raped and gets back at him and is utterly unfazed! True, she recovers for a few days in her bed alone, but then she takes control and gets the pig (and for the rest of the book doesn't suffer any emotional repercussions). Lisbeth is a true woman. She's a victim.

It just doesn't sit right with me. Why do we need such graphic sexual violence? Why is it the norm in his book? Disclosure: as I haven't read the whole book, I am not *sure* how it ends. But as I do occasionally like to read the endings of books when I've only gotten midway through (a good reason not to like e-books, as far as I'm concerned), I believe it ends with the missing woman discovered. (SPOILER!) Turns out, all these years she was a sex slave in the basement of one of her relatives. Wow, I'm so turned on right now! Captive women, subjected to the worst torment and torture, physical, sexual, emotional...just keep 'em right where we want 'em! That's all they are anyway...subservient vaginas that exist only for our pleasure!

No, I haven't read the next two. A friend did. She said the second one opens up with a young girl, naked and tied to the bed, having been used, yes, as a sex slave. And it's her twelfth birthday. How can I go even farther? What's more shocking than 20 years as a sex slave? Getting in while they're young! Seeing it from the start! Yeah! Let's get into her head and really feel how subjugated and humiliated and tortured she the other women can feel it too! And the men...can feel how the man feels. Powerful.

Is this feelings-postulating I'm doing a stretch? Possibly. It's possible that Mr. Stieg Larsson, RIP, was a feminist and wanted to wake the world to the horrors and dangers that, unfortunately, do exist. (See Jaycee Duggard.) But they didn't come off that way to me.

Okay, you say, it's one author, it's one series. An incredibly popular (and becoming more so all the time) series, but just one series. Why the big deal?

Well, publishing tends to follow trends, much the same way Hollywood does. (Try selling a drama--or anything that's not bawdy comedy or sci-fi or involving the word "superhero"--in Hollywood right now to a big studio. I dare you.) What's the big trend in YA lit? Vampires, of course! Vampires sell! We have sparkly vampires, vampires that go vegetarian, vampires in Victorian England, vampires that are fat...YA vampires, literary vampires...the list goes on. Vampires have sold huge for Stephenie Meyer, so every YA author and his typing dog is writing either a vampire or a supernatural novel. And they continue to sell. The NY Times gave a great review to Justin Cronin's literary vampire novel, good enough that I reserved it at the library. (I promise, if and when my space and time restraints lessen, I will purchase unused books!) The vampire trend might be peaking soon, but it's still going strong. And this "trend" trend is what worries me about the Stieg Larsson popularity. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of wannabe authors are going to read these books about Men who Hate Women and write their own. Only now Stieg has crossed the first boundary, so we need to make them more shocking! What's more shocking than a 12-year-old girl getting raped on her birthday? ... Let's see...

I'm not even going to provide examples. I'm sure there are things more shocking, more depraved. The human mind has no limits, unfortunately, where those are concerned. More people will write them, getting darker and darker, more and more evil, turning themselves on as much as others. And agents will rep them, even if they find the books abhorrent; just look at how much Stieg Larsson sold! And editors will buy them, because look at how much Stieg Larsson sold! Everyone will be looking for the next Stieg Larsson. Advances will increase, which will fuel more people to write them; look at how much money I could make! The books will get worse and worse. And then, when does society follow suit?

Obviously hypersexualization of children (and women) has been going on for a while now. Little girls who idolize Britney Spears (because her life has turned out so well), dress like Sex and the City women, whose parents buy them sweatsuits with "Juicy" emblazoned on the butt. Noah Cyrus, 9 years old, coming out with a lingerie line. (She's gotta be able to compete with sister Miley, who's turning into a bit of a ...fill in the blank. And how best to compete? Pushing boundaries!)

Not a subject change (bear with me): I did stand-up comedy (on a very amateur level) for about a year, several years ago. I enjoyed performing, working on comedy and refining my material, thinking of new things to make my wry observations on. But I hated hated HATED listening to the other comics. Some of them were funny and smart. And about 90% of them were not. They were simply not smart enough to think of regular observations that would make people laugh, so they figured they would talk abuot SEX. If I can shock them, I'll make them laugh, and that's the same thing as real comedy, right? I noticed a trend: the stupider the performer, the more crass and disgusting his or her routine. And I, for one, didn't want to sit there and absorb the stupid people's (not funny!) observations.

I actually don't get offended that easily. Sometimes I wish I got offended more easily, actually. But the stupid would-be comics offended me on a regular basis, partly because of the blue routines and partly because THEY WERE SO STUPID.

So to take this little offshoot back to my main thesis, I just don't understand why sex is the go-to topic...for comedy, for drama, for shock value. It demeans us all, but most of the time it demeans women (more than 50% of the population!) more. Women have something to give, something to say. Something important. It's coming from our heads, our hearts, our souls. It's born of experience and perception. Not sex. And this marginalization comes NOT JUST FROM MEN. Women are doing it too.

There's an article in this month's Atlantic magazine called "How Women are Taking Control - Of Everything." It's all about social order, more women going to college, more women supporting their families, women adapting to the new job landscape and becoming more malleable, to their own advantage. Why does it feel like we have control of nothing? All you have to do is watch a rap video and see four bikini'd women rubbing their behinds against one fully-clothed man (brandishing money and gold teeth) to know...things are not equal. Or at least, there are a lot of people who don't want them to be.

Do you ever wonder about the women in those videos? The ones who stick out their big round bare butts for photos that end up on magazine covers? What are they thinking? Of the paycheck? Of their allure? Are they supporting families? Or drug habits? Who knows? I wonder why there are so many women willing to put themselves into that situation. Because one video/picture/book just fuels another. It doesn't seem to get better. You hear a lot of "I'm in control of my sexuality," but the moment you put that picture into the hands of another person, you are literally giving up that control.

I'm sure there are people who disagree with me. I'm sure there are people who see no harm in pushing limits, who think any kind of art is fantastic, who don't think there's any problem with sexualizing the world. I just don't happen to be one of them. I don't want to read about subjugation, because I don't want to imagine myself as anything less than a whole person. I am grateful that people are buying books and keeping that business alive; I really am. (Some indie bookstore people are calling the trilogy The Girl Who's Paying Our Salaries for the Next Few Months.) But I am a whole person, and women of all shapes and sizes and colors and creeds are whole people, with intellect and personality and all kinds of different facets, of which our gender is only one. I have talents, likes, dislikes. And I immensely dislike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Wow. I wrote a whole post (about 1800 words) and posted it, then went back to reread some old posts and realized I had written a post that was STRIKINGLY SIMILAR -- like WAY TOO SIMILAR TO POST a few weeks ago. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

Yes, I went (deeply!) into Omniscient Third and Close Third and the pendulum and Anna Karenina again. How did I not remember even a tiny glimpse of that? Wow.

But I wanted to write that mostly because I've had a productive few days on the book and it's because I've decided where I want the pendulum to swing. It's closer to Close Third but there is a little narration involved. I don't want to explain more than that. I am a crazy overthinker and sometimes I think myself right out of whatever I'm doing. I am hopeful that I can shut down that part of my brain enough to keep going and finish a first draft. I am continually hovering around 60,000 words right now--I have been revising a great deal but I seem to delete as much as I put in--and am hoping to get to 100,000 (the final goal, at least for the first draft; taking my cue from the agents' and editors' blogs I frequent) by the end of the summer.

Ooh, I just put it out there! End of summer! Can I do it? Yikes.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

more baking

Yes, Mondays are a hard day to blog. Sigh. And last night I went to the Yankees game, so I’m operating on two cylinders. But blog I must.

I have continued with my baking, though not as often. I was in Utah for a quick trip to see the family and I decided to bake for them, so I brought my book with me (all 10 pounds of it) and made the apple and pear tarts, which were particular favorites of mine. I wanted to do éclairs, but I ran out of time, preferring to run, jump, blow bubbles, and watch “Cars” and bits of “Marley and Me” with the nephew instead.

My big baking project in Utah was a “Panamanian Roulade cake,” which I made for my dad’s birthday party. It was ambitious, it was grand, it was time-consuming, it was difficult. (It was delicious.) It was a chocolate cake that had layers, but they were vertical rather than horizontal.

I started this cake around 7 pm and turned on my laptop to watch the rerun of the earlier Yankees game. (I like a good distraction while I’m baking. Yes, it has proven dangerous at times.) I ground my own almonds to substitute for pricey almond flour, which isn’t readily available in Utah anyway (and realized that pricey almond flour is nothing besides finely ground almonds, so I don’t have to buy it again!). I baked the cake itself, a big flat layer in a jelly roll pan. It was very difficult to remove from the pan, so I had my dad help and thoroughly annoyed him with my barking directions. “No! Stop stop stop! Okay, go!” I made the frosting and tasted it and it was delicious, but there wasn’t nearly enough to make the cake with. I stared at the directions, hoping for divine guidance, and got it: the directions said to chill and whip the frosting if it wasn’t “fluffy enough.” My frosting wasn’t fluffy at all, so I did that. Lo and behold, fluffy frosting at double the volume! Whoa! I spread the frosting n the layer. I cut the layer into four strips, and then rolled the strips into one big roll that got set on its side. Now, these long strips were extremely fragile and hard to work with, so I had to cut them in half and oh-so-delicately place them against the roll. My fingers and hands were a gooey mess, which I actually hate. I know, it’s unavoidable in baking. But come on, I don’t want to turn on the faucet and get frosting on it because I’ll forget to wipe it down and then the next time I turn on the faucet, with relatively clean hands (even though I’m going to wash them) I’ll get frosting on them again! And forget to wipe it down again! Do you see my problem(s) here?

So seriously, they were bad and it was driving me a little nuts. I also hate having anything under my fingernails, which are long, and dealing with a fragile cake layer and frosting, you have to put the utensils aside and dig in, and you’re guaranteed to get all kinds of crap under your fingernails. I dealt, but it was gross.

Okay, cake rolled. Picture looking down from above at the plate and seeing what amounts to a spiral of cake, held together by frosting. This is what made the vertical layers. It was supremely fragile; the now-fluffy frosting was loaded with room-temperature butter, which we all know (or the dairy-tolerant among us, anyway) is not structurally sturdy. So I gently frosted the rest of the cake with the frosting, and then swirled the top into a lovely pattern. I filled in the dents with more frosting. Usually my cakes are delicious but ugly, but I actually made this one look nice. It was so fragile, but I knew once the butter frosting got into the fridge it would firm up and we would be fine.

So I picked up the plate and walked to the fridge. My parents have a new fridge these days, the two-door kind. But both doors are for the fridge itself; the freezer is the bottom drawer. So I was holding the plate and fragile cake in my left hand, opening both doors with my right. The fridge was packed. I don’t know if it is normally, but whenever I’m home we load up with fruit and restaurant leftovers, and there was an abundance of both. “Hmm,” I muttered, shifting things around. I didn’t want to grip onto the cake plate too hard, because that would smush it against me and get frosting all over my shirt (because who wants to wear an apron at one in the morning?), so I was navigating that angle. Strawberries go….over here. Styrofoam square containers…go over here, one, then the other. All right, the cantaloupe gets transferred over there, and then I’ll move the milk, and then we’ll have a space for the plate and my very fragile cake.

But oh, the errant cantaloupe.

I picked up the cantaloupe with my right hand. It was not whole, having been sliced into the day before, and so it was slippery, but I dug in there (aware of the frosting lingering under my fingernails and regretting the transfer of said frosting into cantaloupe flesh, but there you go) and got hold and put it on a higher shelf. As I was moving the milk, the cantaloupe decided it didn’t like its new spot and tumbled out…onto the cake, smashing the cake into the plate and bottom of the fridge in a big collapsed heap of frosting.

It was one o’clock in the morning. The televised Yankees game had gone nine innings and was over. I was tired and my back ached from standing. I was alone with a mound of chocolate that had to be cleaned up. And the cake…there was no denying it, the cake was ruined.

Reader, I cried.

I had never cried over a dessert before. I’ve made plenty, I’ve nearly ruined some, but I’ve always managed to save them. And this…I just had no idea what to do with this. So I stood over the sink and put my head in my hands and cried.

Now, there was a little more going on than just the cake. I was in Utah because my grandpa isn’t doing very well, health-wise, and he had taken a turn for the worse the week before. I was spending afternoons at my grandparents’ house and there was/is a very real thought that it might be the last time I see him; and if it’s not, he’s not going to be doing any better the next time. I know that end of life is hard for everybody, and I know that if someone passes away at the age of 89, it’s really not a tragedy, especially when that person has lived a full and successful life. But it’s still hard for those left behind, no two ways about it. And seeing this brilliant, strong man operating at about 25% is humbling and disturbing and profoundly sad, and I was shaken anyway. I hadn’t cried about that the entire time I had been visiting, until the cake.

I cleaned up the pound of frosting that was now nestled into the crevices of the fridge with a wet cloth, making repeat visits to the sink to wash it off and return and listening to the “smart” fridge beep at me to let me know it was open. (Thanks! Yes, I’ve got it now! Yep, you’re open! I know! Okay, thanks… okay… stop it STOP IT STOP IT NOW I‘M GOING INSANE SHUT UP STUPID FRIDGE JUST SHUT UP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHUT UP). It took me some time, but I got the frosting cleaned off all white areas of the kitchen. I washed off the troublesome cantaloupe, and then I had to tend to the plate.

What to do with a completely smashed cake?

I ended up scooping it into a springform pan. I knew it was still going to be delicious (and it was) but I was still freaking out. I put the springform pan into the fridge, planning to cover it with whipping cream the next day. (Sorry, lactose-intolerant family members! But there are pills for it.) And I went to bed.

I awoke the next day with a purpose. I was going to make that damn cake again. Springform pan-molded cake was not good enough for my dad’s birthday party; I wanted vertical layers! So at one o’clock (in the afternoon, this time) I started again. And what do you know, it was a lot easier the second time around. Took a lot less time.

So we ended up with two cakes. Sadly, the frosting and the cake were much the same color, so you could barely even make out the blessed vertical layers. And we had two cakes and didn’t even finish one.

But in the battle of Kathy vs the Cantaloupe, Kathy won. This time.