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.