Monday, December 3, 2012

Off the Island: A Search for Simplicity

As we approach the time of year when my personality feels most divided, I’m half inclined to shave my head, give away all of my possessions and head for the hills while half of me yearns to hand paint candy canes and beg Mr. Claus to take me as his mistress. I don’t consider myself a Material Girl, but who am I kidding? “Gimmee gimmee gimmee! Gimmee some more,” is my heart’s true song. However, it’s not the stuff I crave so much as the frenzy. In my mind’s eye December is a month of binging and gorging, stuffing it in and packing it on. In January comes atonement, fasting, pumping iron and making resolutions to need less of the stuff I spent the last month hoarding. How much can I do before I feel like I’m finally done?  The answer-- if I’m honest—is never, ever enough.

            So this year I’m hoping to approach things a bit differently. I’ve abolished credit cards and booked writing retreats for two weekends leading up to the Big Bang instead of camping out at the mall trying to determine if this mug full of bath beads will really prove to my (mother/step-mother/mother-in-law) how much I love her (I really do!). I will no longer be dragging my husband to the craft store on All Hannukah’s Eve to start assembling grouted marble sun dials on our dining room table at midnight (apologies to anyone who’s received any such home-made “craft”). I’d like to wrap my mind around this bizarre concept of Keeping it Simple.

            Despite an emphasis on quality time over quality stuff, most of my holiday memories from childhood blend into a montage of What I Got: the longed for Rubik’s Cube, the surprising mix of a Ken doll, walkie-talkies and Born in the USA, the real gingerbread house under the tree that I loved too much to eat and let the cats pee on instead. Still, of all this bounty, the year that stands out most vividly did not center around what I got or gave but where I was and who I was with.

My traveling companion and I were, as usual, nearly broke and, as usual, had no idea where we’d spend the night. It seemed that all of the shops in Europe were closed for Christmas Eve and by the time we found an open hostel we’d finished most of the crust of bread squirreled away at the bottom of our packs. We were, by American standards, starving. The hostel concierge took pity on us, giving us directions to a soup kitchen free for travelers and the homeless. At the moment we were both. I expected the basement of a grungy YMCA, not the medieval banquet hall we stumbled into an hour later. Torches lined the walls; vats of potatoes, platters of meat and carafes of wine adorned the tables. Vaudeville singers danced on the stage and other homeless travelers danced all around. Unbeknownst to us, we had just discovered Christiania, a hippie squatter commune in central Copenhagen fashioned around an abandoned military barracks. Actual heaven could not have been better. We danced and ate and sang and made merry, feeling the holiday spirit—and many other kinds of spirits too. The next day, with snow falling softly all around, we made a pilgrimage to see the Little Mermaid, beautiful and perfectly contained on her rock in Copenhagen Harbor. I wish our Christmas story ended there and not with getting kicked out of our hostel later that night or ending up on a subway with the Hungarian Mafia on New Year’s Eve but that’s another essay. I’m sure gifts were exchanged at some point but I don’t remember a single one of them.

            Now, for better or worse, unlike the Little Mermaid, I don’t live on an island. I live with people that I want to cram full of as much happiness and stuff and cheer as possible—even if it means driving us all mad in the process. This year I’m hoping that giving myself the gifts of sanity and simplicity will be the gifts that keep on giving.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dancing (Fool) Queen

A few days ago I found myself dancing in the kitchen and then like a leaky faucet, I spread to the living room. I just couldn't stop—what do you call it?—grooving? getting down? None of the words fit because they weren't familiar. Until two months ago when I started taking a range of dance fitness classes, unless I was trying to get a certain unnamed someone’s attention by flailing in front of the television, I did not dance. Now I do it unintentionally, almost like I have dance-Tourrete’s often in the car when I allow myself the guilty pleasure of listening to a top forty station (my equivalent of reading celebrity fashion magazines in the dentist’s office). Why is this such a shock? Because not being able to dance has been an important cornerstone in the foundation of the monument I've built to all the things I can’t do.

Also on the list? Singing. A voice teacher once told me I was tone deaf, which I- and many others- had already suspected. When I told my mother, who’d made a habit of singing with me in the car everyday, she sighed heavily and said, “Well, I tried.”  Who told me I couldn't run? Who didn't? It seemed like everyone, including my very best friends laughed when I more-than-walked. I laughed with them while internally adding another brick to the Temple of Can’t. I still sing to myself and I do occasionally run—especially when I see my son’s bus rounding the corner--but dance combines more complex elements—rhythm, coordination, confidence and grace. More than anyone with a rigid structure of shame and self-doubt can juggle on the dance floor.

Perhaps my anti-dance stance started somewhere around elementary school when I came in last place in the school dance competition. Or maybe after hearing that my moves fall somewhere between Elaine’s on Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman’s impersonation of an old lady freaking out at a Bar Mitzvah. In any case, I was still willing to try at 16, when my mother, in an attempt to keep us kids safe off the streets and safe from sex and drugs, started a “Teen Square Dance Group.” Yes, I wore her matching square dance outfits but even more outrageous than me outfitted in hillbilly frills was the fact that my friends—my cool, alternative, punk rock friends--actually came out to do the dos-e-do. I still don’t know whether to be forever grateful or forever mortified. Maybe I didn't stick with dance because, flawless as my mother’s plan was, I still managed to find sex and drugs-- another routine altogether.

Several years ago when I explained my disabilities to my therapist, she made a compilation of my favorite songs, writing “You CAN run, you CAN sing, you CAN dance” on the CD in black sharpie. But restructuring the foundation is more difficult than building it. Still, as someone who helps push people to their creative edge for a living, advocating for exploration beyond the comfort zone, I realized I was a hypocrite for staying safely in mine. Although I stumbled into my first dance class in years thinking I’d shown up for gentle yoga, I returned on purpose. And I fell in love. I have never laughed, sweated and salsa-ed with more happy reckless abandon in my life. It’s not necessarily that I’m getting better with each class, it’s that I care less if I suck. When I leave, I feel glorious. Like a dancing queen.  

At a recent parent’s coffee, I told one of the moms that I'm going through this bizarre phase where I don't care how stupid I look flailing around in a spandex polyester blend behind glass walls. She smiled at me and said, “I hope it’s not just a phase.” I do, too.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Don't Judge Me By My Mercedes Benz

Because I hot glue-gunned an anarchist Barbie to the hood of my first car—a $500 Honda Prelude---and could start it with the end of a spoon, I should probably consider everything that’s come since an upgrade. But I don’t. Because I judge a car not by its safety, drivability or current inspection, but by its cover. It has to be cool.

But would my keen judgment hold up when the rubber hit the road? I was afraid that it would not. So, when Prudence, my beloved VW Beetle bit the dust and my mother-in-law, an angel of mercy (AKA the only grandparent with enough cash at the ready to bail out an errant child--clearly not the one related to me) gave us money to buy a new car, I forked over her $3K to buy a Mercedes Benz station wagon.

On the lot, I’d admired the Mercedes, the way you would admire a woman who can casually rock a fur coat and a tiara. My husband had researched cars in the vicinity with the devotion of a lawyer studying for the bar, so when he said he’d found the best bang for our buck I believed him. I knew I was likely to choose a car based on its color. I was hoping for something red. I decided to trust the motor head.

As the silver Mercedes purred down the road during the test drive, I felt like I was trying on a glass slipper and I was shocked to find that it fit. “Well hello, Priscilla,” I heard myself say. “Miss Priss!” said my husband. “Perfect. Just like you. High class and high maintenance.”  Who me? I thought. This was the kind of luxury mobile to make customized picnic baskets with real silver and glass stemware just to keep the spare tire company. Maybe, I thought, it was time for me to step it up. “Yes,” I said.

But when I got Prissy home, I crashed--- mentally. “My God, what have I done?” I felt nauseous, the kind of nauseous that comes with gaining 3,500 lbs. of European metal. Looking at the sleek, upscale Mercedes from our junky paint peeling front porch made me feel as if a younger, thinner, richer stepsister had just moved in.

  “It’s just not me,” I wailed to my husband. “It’s so big! I feel like I’m driving a houseboat!” “OK. Let me get this straight,” he said back. “‘My Mercedes Benz just isn’t me.’ Wow. Somebody has real first world problems!” And then he took out the measuring tape to prove that Prissy’s only 2 feet, 3 inches longer than compact, adorable Prudence. Still, that 27 inches felt more like a full grown man than a kind of long baby.

Since he didn’t get it, I decided to talk to more sophisticated people. People who would understand my terror of driving around like a rich, uptight, conservative, suburban mom. My girlfriends. They howled with sympathy. One offered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to have naked girls and metal bands airbrushed on the side. Another said I’d better order some radical campaign bumper stickers, stat. Even my therapist friend suggested not that I grow up and get over it, but that I start socking away money to have it painted cherry red. 

While I’ve appreciated their ideas, I’ve also begun to entertain the notion that I’m suffering from a deeper ailment than the make and model of my car. Listening with heartfelt attention to people with real problems helps. Being grateful that I have a driver’s license and a car that I can mostly afford to put gas in helps. Loading my son and his friends and a few small motor boats and some livestock into the back while they befriend the city from the rear-facing backseat helps. But mostly, being forced to acknowledge that my car doesn’t define me anymore than my wardrobe or bank account, reminds me that I can’t judge other people by their cars or their clothes or their bank accounts either. And that is good. Still, I hope to learn my next life lessons from the front seat of a two-door flame-red Challenger, racing stripes optional. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Female Chauvenist Pig

          Once upon a time on a dude ranch far away, the big boss man, tired of all the fussing and chest beating between the sexes, made the wranglers and cabin girls switch roles for a day. We girls wrangled the horses while the cowboys stayed at the lodge to do the dishes, serve the meals and make the beds. Of course we did everything perfectly—even if I did tie the wrong knot and let one horse out for a little joyride—only to come down the mountain and find that all of the beds had been made—twice. The wranglers had put new sheets on right over the old ones. Still, we had to grudgingly admit that the western Freaky Friday was a valuable lesson. We saw how the other half lived and began to appreciate them more for it.  

            Which is what has been happening around my house lately, if in a more long term, less organized way. While I’ve been working longer hours, my husband’s been picking up more of the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and childcare.  A few weeks ago, after getting home from a particularly long day I found myself standing in the midst of a pile of half crocked art projects, found objects from the river and science experiments gone wrong. I tried not to hyperventilate. “Why isn’t my dinner on the table? Why is this house such a mess? What have you been DOING all day?” And then it hit me as I flashed on all of the stereotypical scenarios of the working dad berating the stay-at-home-mom. My God, I thought. It’s happened to me. I’ve become a female chauvinist pig!

Though I’ve always considered myself a progressive, modern woman—a feminist-- I’ve recently started to examine what’s really brewing beneath the surface of the buzz words I’ve dressed myself in. And what I’ve uncovered is at least as much cave woman as modern woman. “Me, Jane! Me want big man to kill buffalo, pay mortgage AND take care of kid!” Beneath my “let’s not stereotype according to our gender roles” façade, I secretly think my husband should be responsible for the lion’s share of the finances, all of the manual labor, a lot of the household chores and half of the childcare. In other words, not only do I want to have my cake and eat it too, I want to eat it with two scoops of honey vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and wet walnuts. Who doesn’t?  

            I love the tri-fold sense of empowerment, freedom and creativity I get from my work, but deep down part of me feels I should do it only because I want to—sort of for fun-- not because I have to. I should also get lots of room for me-time, self-exploration and mini vacations—while he pays the mortgage, does the dishes and checks over the homework. When and if I do choose to work, I should come home to a hot meal, a sparkling house and a foot massage. Not that I provided any of that for him when he worked all day. Oh, no. That’s when I pulled the feminism card. But thankfully, my husband is a feminist, too. He’d be just as happy to give me all of the responsibilities I’d like to give him. Which is why, in a sometimes civilized, sometimes barbaric way, we’re doing our best to work it out—so that we can both have it all—or at least a little tiny bit of each part of most of it. Without score sheets or time cards, we’re dividing up the work it takes to run a marriage, house and family in as egalitarian a way as possible.

To get a sense of the division of labor, at least in the childcare department, I recently asked an impartial judge for his opinion. Well,” said our son, “it’s 50-50. Actually, it’s 51-49.” I didn’t ask who got the extra 1% because of course, to keep everything in perfect balance, I still need to believe it’s me. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Write Now I Am: A Collection of the Year's First Sentences

Right now I am trying to breathe, write, chew gum and digest the sensation of being thrown off a cliff.

Right now I’m glad we’re writing even in a circle of two--- what did Jesus say about gathering in his name? We gather now in the name of Getting It All Out.

Right now I’m glad there are lights and fans and streams of running water, diesel in the tank, gas in the generator, milk in the fridge, people in the seats, my family right where I left them.

Right now I feel like a squatter in an occupied house, no vacancy.

Right now my feet are on solid ground, even if it’s solid ground on a boat out at sea.

Right now I’m shocked at the person I saw in the mirror this morning; a woman who went to DMV took out the recycling and updated the family health insurance plan all without any hail Mary’s or histrionics.

Right now I’m half in the head of the hunter who wants to kill a blind woman in the story I’m writing.

Right now I’m trying to figure out what to do while laughing at what I’ve already done.

Right now I don’t want to write about the exact same things I do want to write about.

Right now I am happy and full, perhaps too happy and too full, wrestling with the idea that I should be miserable and starving to produce anything good.

Right now I am glad to be out of the vortex I had no name for until Julie supplied it for me; it’s as if I’ve returned from Siberia to a Walmart All You Can Eat Buffet.

Right now my head is full of big nebulous, unformed possibilities rising up amidst the tiny seeds of details, burrowing down.

Right now I am thinking about the jugular and what it means to go for it; to go in for the kill, that moment when we can decide to duck and hide from the wild beast as it charges us or face it and pull it in to use it for our own purposes, for its own good, for the hide and the meat but also the life blood and the spirit.  

Right now, I’m in what feels not like a rut but on a plain, a long stretch of prairie with no peaks or discernable valleys just endless flatness, not accounting of course for the smaller ridges of rear ending the old lady, H swallowing mercury, the cat rolling in silly putty.

Right now I’m thinking about my friend saying, Let’s just marry each other, my friend who says the things I can’t.

Right now I am here but it feels like my frontal lobe is wrapped in a layer of saran wrap that has been folded under by a layer of tinfoil, rolled in mud, left out in the rain and then kicked down the street like a band of kids playing with a pebble.

Right now I’m thinking about my friend saying it’s like putting your baby in a seat on the rollercoaster without a seatbelt and hoping for the best.

Right now I’m wishing writing were more musical like composing or more physical like surfing but while we write we make the music and the motion happen even if it’s later through the voices and bodies of the characters we’ve created.

 Right now I am happy to be here at this table feeling I can at last properly use the word languid since it’s actually hot out and I’m dreamy, sad, prepared to clutch onto the good though it’s sometimes still so hard for me to let go of the bad.

 Right now I’m soft and blurry like a cup of tea with milk, aware of the rain, wishing I was in it, pooling in gullies, swirling down gutters, falling out of sky like a parachute shot down.

Right now I see myself sprinting through a bunch of big empty rooms trying to get from here to there, find the shortcut or the exit sign but no matter how fast I run I’m still where my feet are in the one room I can occupy at a time.

Right now I feel maybe for the first time that family is right up there with art.

Right now I’m reminded that I have a body with skin and blood and muscle and tendons connected to the stomach, the organ of appetite that demands the most attention of all, wanting to be full, to be fed, to be tended to like a starving baby bird.

Right now it feels like there’s a small orchestra pounding out joy right behind my collar bone- sheer weird, loud rambunctious joy and I think it’s because everyone has finally picked up their instrument. We may be out of tune, totally discordant but it doesn’t matter because the effect is a certain mad beauty, like all of the zoo animals and circus freaks and sideshow performers and grizzly old men operating the tilt-a-whirl and Ferris wheel have finally started to play at the same time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


That's my cake. 37 candles. Count 'em.

I knew I was getting older when I had a come to Jesus moment with my dental hygienist; a few weeks shy of my 37th birthday I rededicated my life to flossing. Once upon a time my crucial decisions hinged upon song lyrics or lines from literature. Now they are tempered by a desire to remain intact.

Words and art and music still motivate me, but now living long enough to see what motivates my son plays a role, too. If you’d told me as a teenager that I’d be amongst the first of my friends to get married and have a baby I would have cut my own hair and eaten it, instead of just cutting, bleaching and dreading it. I not only wanted to grow up to be a writer, I wanted to grow up to be a bitter, detached, maybe alcoholic, perhaps starving writer with no strings attached and no obligations to anyone.

Just prior to my Dorothy Parker years when I was still in the single digits, my friends and I played a game called “Fresh out of College” in which we acted out glamorous lives involving high heels, convertibles, boyfriends and, most importantly, unchecked freedom. More often than “eat your vegetables” my mother said to me, “Don’t wish your life away,” encouraging me to slow down, breathe and enjoy the perks of childhood. I, however, wanted to manage my own life, one in which, if the spirit moved me, I could stay up all night eating candy. When I finally reached the magical age of Old Enough to Move Out, I didn’t stay up all night eating candy, but I did stay up all night doing everything else. Naturally, there was a price to pay—a debt I owed well into my twenties. Those experiences both shaped me and gave me a deep well to draw from. I don’t regret any of the detours I’ve taken along my path--- nor do I want to retrace them.

While my twenties were about taking the world apart, putting it back together, marrying a man, having a son and finding myself as a writer, my thirties have been about the marriage of writing and reality. But I’m not only uncovering the occasional pearl of wisdom, I’m unwinding sticky, tangled knots of red tape. A recent hallmark of maturity is my willingness to tackle tax returns, health insurance, a business license and the DMV--- God forbid all on the same day. My current goal is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s—while still trying to write a sentence worth reading.   

I think it’s safe to say that integrating all of my selves will be a life long mission.

This week, my husband, excited that he remembered to take the trash to the curb on the right day was immediately besieged with shame for feeling excited that he remembered to take the trash out on the right day. Personally, I feel like Super Woman if I manage to return my library books on time. To be fair, early on, neither of us had overwhelming expectations for ourselves. By thirty, I thought I’d be divorced and homeless and he thought he’d be dead, so we’re in unimagined territory, accepting responsibility for lives we never thought we’d have. And it’s a beautiful, albeit, messy life.  

 I have younger friends that could run for president and older friends that could use a babysitter. Me, I’m both. I have a house, a family, a career and a beautiful community of friends and acquaintances but my husband didn’t give me the superhero name “Fatal Leap” for nothing. Ask me to balance my check book accurately or look at me funny and I need all the help I can get. In the midst of learning to balance the responsibility, the creativity, the beauty and the chaos, I still want to stay up all night eating candy. But before I go to bed, I’m going to brush—and floss-- my teeth. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Brain Anchor

It’s not until I’m on 95, driving out to visit my dad, that I realize what to do with the fur hat tied by ropes to a cinder block in the trunk of my car, a “brain anchor” used as a prop by a friend in a surrealism creative writing class. My father not only introduced me to the world of surrealism when I was a child, he currently inhabits one of his own.

I’d called him the day before to ask his permission to write about him because, I tell him, there’s nothing else right now I can imagine writing about. Still, I feel like a vulture scavenging for blood. “Oh, of course you can,” he says, surprising me as he always does with his generosity. “I would be honored.” And then he suggests I write an even longer article for a national magazine, because people love to read about other people’s dying parents.  

“But, Dad!” I say horrified. “You’re not dying!”  

“I’ve had another home invasion,” he tells me. “It’s time to stop driving. I’m deteriorating, Valley,” he says. 

“What kind of home invasion?” I ask, but I already know. After suffering a series of micro strokes two years ago he began to undergo a string of MRI’s and psychiatric evaluations which have turned up the words inconclusive, abnormal and dementia.  

 Perhaps I’m biased, but I prefer my dad’s definition of his shifting mental state to anything I’ve found online. His first extended hallucination he described as a “cosmic, horrific supernatural freak show of southern holiness.” A tall man with lobster claws for hands and his very short 300 pound wife, who, together looked like a period and an exclamation point, were the leaders of the pack. “They were hungry and fat and wanted peanut butter sandwiches,” he told me. “I thought I was going to be killed, maybe eaten.” Between trying to beat them away with pillows and making them peanut butter sandwiches, my father called my stepmother and begged her to call the sheriff. She’d assured him it wasn’t real and asked him to hang on until she got home. “I know they’re hallucinations,” he tells me. “But the real question is, are they still there when I’m gone?”

             When I sob to a friend on the phone, the gravity of the situation finally hitting home, she says, “It’s like watching a redwood fall in the forest.” And she’s right. My dad has always been fit and tall and handsome but I think it’s the largesse of his imagination she’s referring to. Growing up, he always kept an open house, an open mind and a tendency to regard the lines between reality, dreams, poetry, fiction and fact more like suggestions than absolutes. As a child, he opened up for me the world of story. Now, at 63, his mind is writing a whole new chapter.

The characters that populate his imagination visit his waking life as well. Civil War soldiers ride up to him on horse back; furry white animals streak the yard; pterodactyls soar through the house. But it’s the confusion, the memory loss and the fat illiterate family of rednecks, the home invaders, with whom he’s had to make his peace. “I’m much more welcoming to them now,” he tells me. “Which makes them go away faster. The lesson here is that no evil can stand up to humor!” 

When I pull into my dad’s driveway he’s bright eyed, holding a riotous fistful of purple irises from his garden. I drive him around to do the things he can no longer do by himself and when we’re done, because I don’t know what else, other than my time, I can give him, I pull the brain anchor out of my trunk. “It’s perfect!” he says and shows me a sculpture in the front yard made of bits of metal and discarded scraps of wood. “I call it stacking,” he says. And he explains to me his new art form, one that takes on different shapes and unexpected dimensions, becoming more bizarre and more beautiful each day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Breast Invasion

Breasts are magical. They have the power to transform girls into women, babies into children, and men into…well, everyone with breasts has their own version of that. My own arrived suddenly, like extra terrestrial twins on a pleasure cruise forced to make a crash landing when their ship went down. I woke up one morning with a brand new atmosphere and gravitational pull. I still occasionally check for moons, rings or anything else that will allow me to apply for separate status in our solar system. Compared to my chest, poor little Pluto never stood a chance.

My extra endowment is not without its ups and downs. I have never had to wonder what it felt like to be a twiggy model with the figure of a 12 year old boy, which is a plus, but I did have to visit a special garment store where I was introduced to womanhood by a hunchbacked old lady with a measuring tape. That “bra”—or what my husband refers to more accurately as my “over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder” was reminiscent of a medieval torture device, if torture devices had more straps and levers. When it accidentally caught fire on a ranch in Colorado I did not mourn its lost. My back, however, did. I’m still amazed Victoria’s Secret doesn’t employ a team of engineers working around the clock to solve the world’s large breast crisis once and for all.

I finally saw the twin’s true virtue when I used them to feed my son, but since he has no memory of nursing, he recently asked if we could give it another go. “Get your own!” my husband yelled which may well be my son’s quest one day. But since he is a confirmed only child, and my chest is in retirement from its service as a food bank, I have started to think about them differently once again. Especially when a tender, sore spot in the one on the left struck the fear of God--and breast cancer—into a place right next to my heart. 

To avoid the dreaded mammogram, I choose an alternative route, scheduling my first ever breast exam with certified clinical thermographer, Eleina Espigh, owner of Virginia Clinical Thermography in Glen Allen. Former executive director of the Virginia Osteopathic Medical Association, Espigh co-located her private practice with a massage therapist three years ago and entering a room more like a spa than a sterile, white lab immediately puts me at ease. Espigh answers all of my questions, explaining that thermography is a noninvasive diagnostic technique used to monitor changes in skin surface temperature. “People are becoming more aware of the dangers of exposure to radiation inherent in a mammogram, and seeking out thermography as a safer alternative,” she says. And though she also uses thermography to effectively diagnose pain, fractures and other injuries to the body, the larger percentage of her patients seek out thermography to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages.

After I fill out the paperwork and Espigh explains that today’s exam will establish a baseline to be followed by regular checkups, she asks me to take off my shirt and raise my hands above my head. “Your breasts are quite large,” she says, “but there are worse problems to have.” We laugh, and as she takes pictures from the front, back and side, she points out dark orange streaks on the computer screen that match the tender spots on my chest. I have fibrocystic tissue, she tells me, a common condition that may be treated by simple dietary changes. A board certified thermalogist will interpret the images and confirm what Espigh tells me in a detailed report that I’ll receive later that week, but for the moment, I thank her and my lucky stars, that for the time being I don’t have to adapt to any new alien invasions. The ones I’ve already had are enough for this lifetime.

To schedule a thermography appointment, visit, call 804-454-4540 or visit the Virginia Thermography Clinic at Good Foods Grocery in Gayton Shopping Center the last Saturday of every month.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

Raw Fresh Things: The Fine Art of Falling Apart

Act 1:

I've been lost in that part of the labyrinth where you can’t see ahead or behind and you’re too short to climb over the hedge-- that locked up bit that causes young parents to call the police and David Bowie to take acting jobs with muppets. Floating through a murky haze as if I've taken a red-eye from Istanbul, jetlagged, but from life, there’s something more going on than I can find in the mirror. I’ve been tender and sad and unsure, like there’s a little girl inside that’s been shattered over something-- a bad grade or a bad boy or both-- and the big girl that's in there too must care for her but she feels like putting on black eyeliner and black boots and stomping around with her friends before taking the time to apply the band aids and find the tissues to wipe up the tears. I can’t tell if I’m making up the story or merely recording it, but I know it’s a footnote to the void, the luggage compartment of the hole, that space that gets emptier and hungrier than a vacuum cleaner refill bag if I’m not vigilant, a vortex in me that wants more, more of anything, even a bad thing, especially a bad thing-- if it’s familiar. I think being tired is the red carpet for tears and so today I’ve let them roll.

Act 2:

Fine, tears, deliver your message. I’ll welcome all of you now, even though if life were a menu I would have ordered blissfully happy for every course. Even though blissfully happy is actually a bit watered down—jacked up ecstatic is more like it. In the past and even the present I haven’t been above using whatever crutch I could get my hands on to get me there. But these tears, this welling up of something can’t be denied just because I have a longing for an imaginary crack house in heaven. They’re here for some reason and what I hear them saying  is I have more to give than I’m giving. I’ve been holding back and the result is a log jam that can’t help but spill over. I’ve been holding back because over exposure isn’t cool and raw fresh things are easy targets for skewers and sometimes I want to put a heavy blanket of books and HBO specials and iPhone apps around this needy pulsating thing that gets me up in the morning and moves me around during the day. When I don’t write with that blanket stripped away and my heart completely naked it’s like having the harvest from my own garden rot in the fridge while I eat CheezDoodles and HoHos and Hot Pockets from the microwave. I need to call myself back, all of me, so I can be funneled into the important pieces of my life, this work, right here.

Act 3:

I want to build a closer, steadier, more reliable relationship with my art. I want to be close like husband and wife or mother and son or two best friends who finally shacked up together, not like those people you duck into another aisle to avoid at the market because you missed the real appointment with them long ago. I want a rich, deep, daily relationship that self propels like a La-Z-Susan circling back around again and again, serving me as I serve it, my writing and me, eating breakfast together at the table. I want to take new risks regularly, going beyond the flimsy invisible walls I treat like steel. I want my art and me to know each other like bread and butter, like skin and bone, not third cousins twice removed at the family reunion. I want my art and me to be buddy-buddy, not just pen pals where one person suddenly stops writing back, but blood brothers, blood sisters, who can’t get to the door fast enough to say everything, that did or didn’t happen, was or wasn’t there. I want my art and me to go for fancy restaurant dinners but to come home together and lock the door from the same side, no one shut out, no one alone. I want art and me to drink milk straight from the jug, one after the other without apologizing for being unseemly, without embarrassment, without threatening to leave to find more distant, polite and acceptable company. Because this is the only way out of the labyrinth I know. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Born Here, Been There: American, East Coast & Southern

Over the last several years the same Feng Shui consultant has told me twice, in no uncertain terms, that there is no hope for our house that can be bought by charms or rearranging of pillow placements and that the best thing for us to do is to move, preferably yesterday. Both times I’ve agreed with her. There’s baggage here, ghosts, my parent’s past and my own, not to mention structural and aesthetic repairs that seem to be well beyond our scope. But, much as my mind is made up to get out of dodge for a full 24 hours after she leaves, we stay. 

It’s as if she’s told me to step out of the quicksand. She’s right; I just can’t seem to do it.

Mulling over my plight with a friend I heard myself say, “I’m just not like all these white Westend women!” Maybe because she’s from California the truth was more obvious to her. “But you ARE a white Westend woman!” she said. It was an epiphany. Not having an excess of national, regional, cultural, house or any other kind of pride, my geographic identity is something I’ve wrestled with most of my life.  

At the predominantly African American elementary school I attended in Church Hill, there was little I could do to hide the fact that I was white and Jewish—especially after my mother’s classroom Hanukah presentation. But after being transferred, I didn’t feel like I fit in any better at the almost entirely white conservative school in my own neighborhood where I was the only kid who didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan in our class mock election.

At school in New York, one had to dig deep to unearth my southern roots. Southerners were backwards, redneck racists who spent all their time reenacting Civil War battles-- if they weren’t too busy eating grits. I was busy eating grits, but if I’d been in the Civil War, I would have gone Union. Likewise on the dude ranch in Colorado, I was loath to admit my East Coast origins. Easterners were neurotic academic snobs who didn’t know how to brew a decent cup of cowboy coffee or saddle a horse. I had to learn both the hard way. Living in Italy, I did my best to disguise the fact that I was American. Americans wore fluorescent visors, ugly fanny packs and brayed like donkeys in the museums and churches meant to honor the dead. My ruse was successful until I opened my mouth, effectively butchering the native tongue of Dante and Boccaccio in a single espresso order. 

But I have a feeling if I’d moved to Mars I would also have tried to refute my humanity.

As hard as I tried to leave my American, East Coast, Southern roots behind, they pulled me back, not only to Richmond, but to the house I grew up in. Maybe my mother buried my placenta in the backyard. Maybe the souls of the cats we’ve put to rest out by the fence line steal our breath while we sleep. Maybe I accidentally married my house when I married my husband. Maybe I’m trying to straighten out my childhood by raising my own child in my old bedroom.

Whatever the reason, I’ve not only ceased trying to divorce myself from my hometown, I’ve fallen in love with it, too. Just as one can’t get to know everything about another person in a single lifetime, the city where I’m from will always offer more to discover. Even though a trip to the grocery store can be like attending my own high school reunion, Richmond has more interesting neighborhoods and quirky personalities than a dysfunctional family has alcoholic uncles. My definition of love has always been wide, but coming back to stay has allowed it to grow deep. The castles I build in the sky might spring from quicksand, but at least I’m finally proud to say they’re mine.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How to Be Happy

Le lit défait  (The Unmade Bed) by Eugene Delacroix

            Don’t read articles about how to be happy. Wait until your friend reads them and then take her hostage until she reveals what actually works. Recoil as if from a screaming toddler when she tells you that in order to even get out of bed each day you should really make a gratitude list. Don’t scrunch your face up, stick your tongue out and decide now’s the perfect time to get a new friend.   

            Spend the morning in bed wondering if your journal can even contain such multitudes. Don’t curse your husband for using the last of the milk and the nondairy creamer. Take a multi-vitamin and drink your coffee black. You’re going to need it.

Start with the floor furnace. Realize that if it hadn’t died last winter you would never have known the sweet smell of kerosene or the sound of a rocket readying for blastoff when the replacement forced air heater you call the ghettoblaster suddenly ignites in the next room. Think of all the opportunities your family has had to grow closer and more fire retardant huddled around its fluorescent orange flame.

Next, be glad you were raised on food stamps because now when you have a dollar you know what to do with it. Daydream about what you could do with it and then be grateful for your magnificent imagination.

Thank your lucky stars that the hot, rich guy in the silk scarf dumped you so you don’t have to be some dumb trophy wife in a boring city like Paris.

Thank God that your prince wears coveralls instead of shining armor. Be glad he refused to get a regular, full time job because if you hadn’t had to find work you’d be lying on the couch watching cable, instead of curled up in bed thinking how superior you are that you’re not. You’d be able to afford cable but you’d be watching Toddlers and Tiaras, trying to figure out how to force your son into a huge blonde wig so that he could curtsy on the catwalk instead of attending first grade while you engage in a meaningful line of work that brings you great joy. 

Thank God you were broke when you wanted to get that divorce.

When you see the thirteen inch scar stretched across your side, remember that if you were tough enough to survive going under the knife you can probably survive another year of filing federal income taxes.  

Thank God that you have a friend who’s always bouncing off to exotic, foreign lands so that you don’t have to get all those nasty shots or wait in line at the post office to renew your passport in order to own powerful looking tribal dolls or beautifully hand-painted ceramic plaques that say “Shalom Y’all.”

Be glad that you still live in the house you grew up in because you never have to waste precious time changing the information fields when you reorder address labels. And that being so rooted has made you part of an intricate network of friends and relatives that steer you back onto the right course, holding your hand through the detritus and rubble until you’ve finally uncovered  the faintest glimmer of the silver lining.

Consider getting dressed for the day and then be grateful that since getting laid off from the office you can work from home.

            Walk back into the kitchen to see if milk has magically reappeared in the fridge and resist the temptation to throw the “Every Problem Contains a Gift” magnet in the trash. Tape it to your forehead, instead.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Photography Exhibits, Wounded Warriors and Other Unusual Happenings at the Village Exxon

If it’s wrong to fall in love with a gas station I don’t want to be right. It’s not just that someone offers to look under my hood every time I fill up or that one of the attendants hand delivered my debit card to my house minutes after I left it there or that they have music CD giveaways, although those things could give anyone a good case of the warm fuzzies. No, the Village Exxon goes above and beyond: they support local businesses, charities and artists in a way I haven't noticed anywhere else while pumping gas.

I first knew something special was going on between the exhaust fumes and oil changes the day I asked the dark eyed, dark haired woman holding a Chihuahua in a pink sweater behind the counter  for quarters to vacuum out my car. As she handed me my change, she started talking about authors, poetry and the novel she was in the midst of writing. I lit up. There's nothing like finding literature outside of an expected institution. Over the months, as I read Exxon's Customer Service Administrator, Hope Whitby's book reviews and artists interviews included at the end of each of the station’s electronic newsletter, I knew I’d discovered something really special.

As Hope and I continued to talk about literature and music and the local arts scene, she told me about her most recent efforts to organize “Art in the Shop, The Photography of Scott Pels,” a benefit for The Wounded Warrior ProjectI was immediately taken with this unusual marriage of form and function. But what successful marriages, I wondered, aren't unusual? And who wouldn't love the opportunity to blend culture and charity and a good fill up?

Why, I asked Hope, do you feel moved to support local artists from behind the desk of  a filling station and auto repair shop? “Being an artist is often a hard life to live and sometimes lonely,” she says.  “An artist is often overlooked or maybe even misunderstood, so if there is an opportunity for me support an artist or give him or her a platform, I’m there. Art enriches our community with beauty, it educates our children, it mirrors our society and inspires change, and it can foster an appreciation for cultural differences.”

Excellent! Why then did you choose the photography of Scott Pels for Exxon’s first art opening? “Scott Pels has a gift," says Hope, who gave the 25 year old chef his first official sale two years ago, purchasing one of his photographs of the Byrd Theatre chandelier. "He has an eye for capturing the snapshots of our everyday lives and giving it back to us with romance, charm, and respect.  I appreciate how he approaches his subjects and the dedication he has in revealing that picture to his audience. There was no other choice for me, but to recommend him for the show.”

Fabulous! Why then will the proceeds from this opening benefit the Wounded Warrior Project? "They are a non-profit that provides a complete rehabilitative effort to assist wounded service members as they recover and transition back into civilian life," says Hope. "The owner of the station, Jim McKenna, admires the work they do and wanted to give back to them by having a yearlong fundraising campaign.  Helping veterans is dear to Jim, because his father, James McKenna, Sr., served during World War II and was taken prisoner. Jim, Sr, later founded the first chapter for POWs in Richmond This art show and the fundraising drive is dedicated to the memory of James McKenna, Sr."

Skibo's Ride
“I’m excited and a little bit nervous at the same time," says Scott Pels, a native of Charlottesville who moved to Richmond at age 3. "It’s something that I’ve never really done before.” Scott first became interested in photography in the fall of 2008 and joined the Camera Club of Richmond in 2009. After submitting his work and winning numerous wards, he started taking his new hobby a little more seriously.

So far he has focused on shooting nature, architecture, landscapes, portraits and anything else that catches the eye of his Canon 60D, a digital single lens reflex camera, the shots sometimes enhanced with photoshop. Scott loves venturing downtown, to the James River, the fan area, Shockoe Bottom, Hollywood Cemetery, Goochland and Maymont to find subjects that appeal. At the opening this Sunday, prints of his work will be available for purchase, order or to be framed upon request.  

              And, if it goes well, Hope plans to organize more arts in the shop. "It’s a great space to host our neighbors and bring awareness for a great charity," she says. "We are considering a poetry event in April and a silent auction in the early summer." 

Even if my tank's already full, I know where my car will be parked this Sunday. I hope to see yours there, too. 

Enjoy the photography of Scott Pels, live jazz by Moore and O’Leary and refreshments on Sunday, February 26 from 1-4 pm at the Village Exxon. All proceeds from the $10 admission price benefit the Wounded WarriorProject.

82 Creations

Time Warp

Self Portrait


Contact Scott Pels at 804-200-9592,   or on Facebook:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In the Land of Strangers: The Unnerving, Narrative Paintings of Mary Chiaramonte

"There are a select few people that are the people I understand them to be. I read a study about twinship and loneliness and how that effects a person. Apparently twins feel really alone all the time—when they’re not with their twin because they have such a bond that they feel such a separation from everyone else. This portrays the general feeling that I have with my sister. It seems like there are so many people that I've come across in my life that I've trusted to be one way but they've turned out to be not what I've expected"   --Land of Strangers, 2012 

I am a word girl. I hear music through lyrics and I see images through the veil of language. Which is why the paintings of Mary Chiaramonte hooked my imagination immediately; leading me out of the room in which I was sitting when I saw them first, through the gallery where I saw them later and into a lush, dark underbelly within the world of story.
Mary’s paintings are laced with narrative, but like books that don’t end tied neatly in a bow or with a happily-ever-after trailing off into a synthetic sunset, her paintings ask more questions than they answer. “I feel like one of my biggest goals with my work is to try to understand human nature,” she says. “I think I’ll never grasp it fully. I take what I know and make it more bizarre because it’s that place I don’t understand.”
Like snapshots taken in the middle of a dream, Mary’s paintings in the body of work, “Land of Strangers,” evoke the sensation that a secret has just been told, or that you are peering at someone in a moment of intimate privacy. If you’d happened to look a second later, everything would have been different; the subjects would have made themselves more presentable for the world. But that’s not what we want—we want what’s hidden deep inside. 
The images in Mary’s paintings beg their viewer to keep looking, to figure out what could possibly have led to this, to piece together a personal interpretation. They echo that whole unending question that I have about human nature,” she says. “There isn’t any answer.” There is, instead, unnerving compositions within a blend of darkness and light where the subject seems to hang in the balance. “There’s a story in my own mind,” she says. “A lot of the stories I convey in my paintings seem to be the negative things that happen in my life. That’s where my mind tends to go—to the dark places.”
            Mary reads biographies and autobiographies and says that while painting, she has listened to every single episode of This American Life. “The mystery of human nature is just so interesting to me,” she says. “That’s why I’m drawn to biographies. I want to know the truth about people but I don’t know how much of it’s real anyway. There’s no sure ground for anyone.”
 Using acrylic on birch panel, she keeps a rigorous schedule. “It’s the same thing everyday,” she says. “Sometimes it gets boring. I make myself stay in the studio all day and paint. I get up pretty early—about 6 and take my dog for a 3 mile run, come home, take a shower and get to work” She’s currently at work on a painting of a woman with a bobcat on the end of a string. “The bobcat is one of my husband’s taxidermied animals,” she says. “It’s standing up growling and looking crazy. The title’s going to have something to do with being tamed. It’s what I was saying about settling down in my married life.”
            So far the marriage of Mary’s discipline and talent has paid off—in her prolific body of work with a wide cast audience. At 32, her art appears in collections throughout the US and Europe. She has been featured in New American Paintings and American Artist Magazine and is currently represented by Long View Gallery in Washington, DC, Hespe Gallery in San Francisco and the Eric Schindler Gallery here in Richmond, Virginia.
            The opportunity to ask questions about her work in general and certain paintings in particular, was, for me like the unparalleled pleasure of discovering an epilogue after the cliffhanger.  

            Mary's paintings are mesmerizing, thought provoking and unsettling. But don’t take my word for it. Go see them for yourself. 

Her show, “Land of Strangers,” will be at the Eric Schindler Gallery through March 10. 2305 East Broad StreetRichmondVA 23223. Call 644-5005 or visit for gallery hours.

Visit Mary Chiaramonte online at

Take Care, 2011-  I wanted to leave anything dark in the past behind. That’s why there’s a building storm behind her. The umbrella symbolizes having shelter from that and moving on. There’s a positive outlook, but a foreboding, ominous  background. 

The Nameless, 2011 --  This one's about the mystery of human kind and how I can't put a name to it. It’s just something indescribable. Nothing’s ever what you expect. It’s kind of fun that life’s like that. I take it with me, everywhere I go. It’s such a big thing for me, it burns inside of me that I can’t understand people. They’re not always how you think they are or what you know, even. I love the mystery. It’s a thing that I’m so passionate about. For this, I built a cardboard model of a house and lit it on fire. I was living in a suburban area at the time and there were all these houses, but I painted it in front of a nighttime sky. It was funny, I thought somebody was going to call the fire department. 

Souvenir, 2011 --I don't think this has any deep dark meaning or anything. My husband has all these sort of treasures, he would call them, but they’re just all these different taxidermied animals in our house. He has a trunk full of them. It’s just a little snippet of my life at home with my husband. 

Our Very Own Secret Hideout, 2011
Best Friend of Man, 2011

High Tide, 2010
Forever Lull, 2011
Estranged, 2011

World Turning, 2011


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Was a Teenage Bisexual

When my step-brother and I were high school juniors we each made an announcement one night at a family dinner. “I’m bisexual,” I told “the parents” as we called them then. “And I’m dropping out of high school,” said my step brother. “Oh! Well isn’t that wonderful?” they exclaimed, my dad launching into a story about hitchhiking to Florida from rural Virginia, finding work in an orange juice factory and returning home to make straight A’s after the acid ate away the soles of his boots. Later, my own mother stopped just short of rubbing her hands with glee. She’d already introduced me to her friends who wore short hair and flannel: she was prepared. My brother did want to pursue a life of unadulterated freedom and I was as curious and nervous about girls as I was about boys; however our parents’ reception knocked the wind out of our sails. After graduating high school, my brother went on to college and in the end, I married a man.

But not before exploring my options first. My friends were smart, beautiful, creative, funny and kind, making them obvious choices over, say, the hairy boy who reeked of Drakkar that asked me to accompany him to Red Lobster. In high school, I did date boys and even had a boyfriend--- although I refused to name it that then, shunning labels like the pledge of allegiance. I didn’t want to be easily pinned down or classified— none of us in our rag tag group did. Banding together, we created a category of our own— just like millions of other suburban fringe kids around the country. Just as soon as I tried on one identity I outgrew it, like a haircut or jeans. A part of me secretly longed to be the cheerleader adored by the football team, but falling just short of that, I did a 180. Bleached dreadlocks and a girl one week, crimson curls and a long-haired boy the next.

For me, one size did not fit all.

And then, my junior year abroad in Italy, along with my first apartment, I had my first girlfriend--- I think it was a course requirement at our particular liberal arts college. I still refused to use labels, but after moving out of the homes of our host families and in with each other, we were more than roommates and more than friends. We shared not only espressos and homework assignments but living expenses, and beds. I wrote poems for her. She painted me. We gave each other jewelry. We took weekend trips to remote villas, exploring both the country and largely hidden sides of ourselves. It could have been that we were young and in a foreign country, but I count it as one of the most romantic and devastating relationships of my life—certainly one of the few that has taught me the most. It was far from perfect, but that’s why it fit perfectly into my life.

A few heartbreaks and (mis)adventures later, I’ve chosen—at least from the outside and compared to many of my friends-- a fairly straightforward life, one that includes marriage, motherhood and a mortgage in the suburbs. Most days I feel lucky to have found another person I want to spend my life with; I can’t imagine not having been allowed to do so based on his gender or mine.

Yes, my parents made it more difficult to rebel, but I am infinitely grateful to them for their acceptance of my choices regarding not only who to be, but who to love. I have little doubt that I would have done everything I was going to do anyway, but doing it with their blessing went a long way.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Teach What You Need

They say you teach what you need to know. Of course, they also say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” but obviously those people don’t know anything. When I was little, everyday when I got home from school, I lined my dolls up against the bedroom wall, stood in front of the chalkboard my dad salvaged from a job site, put on a pair of my mother’s discarded high heels and reviewed what I’d learned that day for a very captive audience. My mother said she could tell exactly what each of my teachers were like because I aped their styles, at turns screaming at, berating, coddling or encouraging the plastic and cloth babies at my disposal.

But, despite my early track record it didn’t occur to me to become a teacher until many years after running the gamut of waitressing, administrative and freelance gigs that I scavenged up to pay the bills.

And then, through a series of happy accidents (otherwise known as getting laid off before becoming broke and desperate) I took up teaching. A friend of mine said, “It’s like you were a top careening madly around before collapsing in exactly the right place.” Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.

I don’t have a teaching degree, an 8-3, a salary or a principal. I don’t have to deal with grades or report cards or SATS. In a way I don’t consider myself a “real” teacher and I bow deeply to those I do. Their jobs, in my opinion, are the hardest, most thankless, and most deeply important in this world.

But I love teaching, because to me it is the process by which I learn the most. I learn from my students who- 8 or 68 —contain vast storehouses of knowledge and experience that I don’t. When I was a teenager, my goal, other than to be a famous reader, was to experience everything. In this way I get to do both.

The stories and poems and essays and bits of word play or dialogue shared by the writers in my class expand my imagination, my vision and my vocabulary. As I write right alongside them, the scratching of their pens pushes me across my own blank page. Writing can be a very isolating, intimidating and lonely task but diving in with everyone else gives me the sense that we’re all swimming in the same deep ocean together. And as we read aloud what we’ve just written, I never cease to be blown away. Beautiful, heartbreaking, disturbing, hilarious, strange, unsettling, thoughtful and deeply true words curl up from their pages, shattering whatever assumption about them I might have made before. Turning your insides out tends to do that. Not that it’s a course requirement, or a confession stand, but it’s hard to write for too long without beginning to write the truth. And the truth, whether it winds its way into a memoir, poem, short story or novel, is what helps me understand life- and writing- the best.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Scott Ray the Chief Engineer of the cruise ship in Alaska where I was a stewardess, said to me once. “Only sometimes you find that you have to be both the student and the teacher.” I didn’t quite know what he meant, only that I was glad to know, were we to hit a turbulent patch of sea as our small boat careened over large icebergs, I wasn’t the only one on board that knew how to swim.