I belong to a writing community called Red Oak.
We don’t live in a commune or take a pledge or anything like that. Mostly what we do is show up to read our writing and listen to other people. In order to have that work in a good way, the people involved have to be generous. And they are – when the writing is glorious and when it’s maybe not so glorious.
There was a showcase tonight where Red Oak members signed up to read to the larger group. This reading was a Christmas party held at a local club and had eleven writers reading to the group. I was last.
I took a chance. I read a funny piece. I have plenty of what a friend calls ‘poignant’ pieces, and they are sure to please a crowd, but funny is harder. Reading what I thought was a funny piece, which had me laughing when I practiced, was a risk. It’s so easy to fall in love with one’s own stuff. But this was going to be different – people would either laugh – out loud so I could hear them – and not, which I would hear even louder.
They laughed. They may have been their generous selves, or it might have been funny.
Here’s the piece.
“If I was a big, tall guy, would I be a looming, space-taking, oblivious asshole or would I be nice?” I asked the question of no one in particular but my husband was within earshot. “Oh, you’d be nice.”
I had just crumpled my ticket to the football game in my hand like it was a gum wrapper I was about to throw out the window of the car if I was so inclined which I’m not. I never litter. Never.
It started with the giant men in line to get into Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers game. Big men with big parkas, hunting pants on, and boots thick as bricks. Each of them took up triple human space – their own physical bodies, their extraordinary garb, and their auras fueled by Miller Lite, begging the question, what is the point of drinking a light beer when you are already giant?
We waited in line to go through the metal detector. I held in my right mittened hand my phone and my lipstick. This is all I travel with these days – these two little items – having long ago left my beloved Coach purse in a heap under my desk. I can’t be bothered with satchels like some damn donkey. I just want to go on my way with my hands in my pockets.
The big looming man on my left reached across me and touched my lipstick. And then he murmured something that sounded like instructions or advice about the metal detector, I couldn’t discern the specifics because I was so focused on the question: Why are you touching my lipstick? Who touches somebody’s lipstick? Seriously, is this something that you would do? I would never. Especially a stranger’s.
So I shouted at him “I can’t hear you” which is my reflex response to people I have no intention of listening to and he moved forward, felling trees and scattering small wildlife as he clomped ahead.
Lord, I thought, my hatred of men is getting out of control. I was with a man, my husband. He is substantial but not looming and unfailingly polite and if he’s ever touched anyone’s lipstick, he’s kept it a secret all these years.
Finally, we are inside Lambeau just as the Packers are taking the field. We march up to Row 49 which is a major hike, and we get to where there are several men sitting in a row. We stand there, say excuse me and they stand but as they stand, their enormous, booted feet are covering all of the space in front of them so in order to get to our seats, we will have to swing from the zippers on their outsized parkas, one to the next. So I said, “Don’t make it too easy, guys” and we went to the row below, walked down several seats and then hoisted ourselves up to our seats.
It was then I smashed my ticket in my fist.
My husband, meanwhile, took his seat happily, he’s always happy at Lambeau, I could be propped up in a coffin beside him and he’d remark on his good fortune to be at a Packer game when the sun was shining.
After a while, at the end of the first quarter to be specific, I reminded him of his promise to get us something to eat after we got our seats. This meant leaving our seats and going to the concourse. Going back the way we came seemed fraught with danger because of my still percolating hatred of the looming, space-taking men at the end of the row, so we opted for the other direction. Magically, if on cue or warned ahead of time, all four men, also tall and excessively garbed, not only stood but walked to the aisle so we would have an unencumbered exit from our seats.
Oh my God, I thought. They’re so nice.
When we came back from the hot dog stand, the four men again stood up and moved to the aisle so we could walk to our seats without crawling over their knees. Thank you, thank you, we said, like they had sprinkled rose petals in our path. They’re real gentlemen we decided and it gave me hope that not all men think they can touch my lipstick.
Later, after my husband had chatted the nice men up, which he is prone to do, engage in conversation with other men at sporting events like they have been pals since 6th grade, my husband turned to me and said, “They’re from Nebraska,” intending that fact to explain everything. Which it did, in that moment
I bought a nine dollar bottle of Carolina barbecue sauce and then exploded it all over the kitchen floor. I wasn’t looking for barbecue sauce when I bought it but the bottle was at eye level while I was waiting for the butcher to trim ‘a bit of fat’ off an eight pound brisket. Which, don’t you worry, I wouldn’t let come near barbecue sauce, Carolina or not. It ‘s Hanukkah, folks. The brisket is holy.
I have ten people to cook latkes for tomorrow and fifteen pounds of potatoes. I am the queen of overbuying. Plus if my trusty potato peeling and grating comrade doesn’t show up (which, regrettably, has been his pattern of late), then that’s a whopping amount of work for the queen. The grating is the worst because it makes my knees go weak thinking about the knuckle risk.
We watched the movie “Everest” a few days ago and tonight went to a Nepalese restaurant called Everest. The restaurant was inside a Chinese restaurant. There were a lot of very wrenching parts to the movie, people dying in the snow on the side of the mountain, farewell phone calls on satellite phones, and a huge amount of frostbite and snow blindness. The food was very good but we were the only people in the restaurant. We made it back to our car without incident.
Today’s now rare Zoom meeting was interrupted for several long minutes by the cat doing his business in the litter box in my office and then taking forever to make sure his leavings were probably covered up. The scratching was loud and endless and came just when a colleague was explaining something. I nodded as if I’d heard every word. Cat? What cat? Later, after the turmoil subsided, I was reelected chair of the Commission on Aging which was very cool and made me quite happy.
The clock is ticking on this Friday Round-Up. It’s 11:50 p.m. so just ten minutes until it’s not Friday anymore. And then what? Saturday. A whole different day. You can’t get Friday back. I know. I’ve tried.
At 5 o’clock, I make what many would consider a very strong rum and Coke and I sit down at my desk to decide what to write about.
Once, in a writing group, the topic was “how do you get ready to write?” There were the folks who took long walks and others who wrote in their journals, collecting their thoughts, free-writing – which to me always sounded like running through a field of daisies in a white dress but is a legit writing method and probably what describes my output more than anything else. Like this here. This would qualify as free writing. Others read passages of their favorite authors. Immersed themselves in the mission of writing, as if it were worthy of a preparatory ritual. No, as if a preparatory ritual was necessary.
Anyway, when it came my turn to tell how I get ready to write, I said, “I make a drink.”
The discussion with my literary friends made me question my methods. But not for long. I really like having a rum and Coke and writing my blog. Sometimes, remarkable things come out of these fingers. Other times, not so much. But I always feel cozy and comfortable writing. It’s the rum, you say. Yes. But it’s also greeting the task of writing with a sense of joy – like what trick am I going to play on myself? What random memory will pop up and be meaningful – to me, in this moment? If I relax in this day, what will it tell me?
I’m not going to be asked to give a lecture on writing techniques. No one will give me a fountain pen and a journal for Christmas (though someone might give me a bottle of Flor de Cana). I’m not going to be on the New York Times bestseller list. I just have my little joyful, slightly inebriated, corner of the writing world and it’s pretty nice.
Writing shouldn’t be work. It should be luscious.
Flor de Cana is a famous Nicaraguan rum. The English translation of Flor de Cana is Sugarcane Flower.
She ordered a 2024 datebook the first week in December to keep track of things happening in January so nothing got away from her. When she opened to the first week, there was an entry for Monday, “Breakfast with Roland,” written in cursive like Mrs. Grant’s in 3rd grade. And then every Monday after that for the entire year, written with a ballpoint pen. She could tell because it smudged the 2nd Monday in May. It was baffling how a calendar could come from Amazon with dates filled in. Even though she liked Roland, breakfast every week was too much.
This is our Christmas tree. I’m going to call her Dolly.
Dolly came in three pieces that stack. Each piece is prelit with white lights with the A piece plugging into the B piece and then into the C piece and then to the green extension cord that had been hiding on the back porch from when I used it to fire up my laptop on summer days when I was sharpening my shabby chic writer persona by hanging out there with the dogs and the chickadees.
Dolly wears no tree skirt though I have both a red one and a white one with sparkles that could be used. A skirt would mess up Dolly’s streamlined look. So would more lights. I am going for an understated look, like a nice blazer with jeans look. Classy. Not trying to win a contest or have folks on the street stop and stare through the living room window.
I just want to walk downstairs and see Dolly smiling at me.
In a month, I’ll put Dolly’s A, B, and C pieces in the box she came in. I’ll carry the box to the attic and put it on the floor next to the giant green Christmas tree stand with five huge screws that we used to make a six-foot formerly live tree submit to our vision for its afterlife. I’ll remember having to crawl on my belly under the branches to put water in the stand every day because of my mortal fear of the possibility of the tree spontaneously combusting and killing us all in the night. I’ll remember the wondrous ‘taking the tree to the curb’ ritual and all the pine needles in the front hall carpet dating back to 1984. It is in reminiscing that we truly appreciate the present.
Say hello to Dolly and wish her well.
I was estranged from my parents for a very long time. It began with a single comment made by my mother in a testy phone conversation about my sister.
“You think you’re so smart.”
So, I understand estrangement and how little it takes to set it in motion. Practically everyone I know has a story of estrangement. “I haven’t seen my brother in fifteen years.” “My daughter hates me and says she never wants to see me again.” Comments on women-only Facebook discussion groups are detailed and sad, lamenting and pitiful, until someone chimes in with advice to do your best, keep the door open, and unbreak your heart.
The holidays make estrangement seem like a fatal cancer. And an epic failure. If you were a better person, you would be well. If you hadn’t failed so miserably, your table would be crowded with relatives who traveled from around the world on their knees to eat your mashed potatoes.
If you feel this way, put that feeling in a box, wrap it in a plastic bag from Target, and bury it in the front yard.
You are not responsible for the decisions other people make. You aren’t responsible for their happiness or sadness – unless you truly are, like if you’ve been taken to court and been proven to be horrible in some way. Short of that, people choose.
I have chosen to leave people. People have chosen to leave me. That is what happens in a life.
In the morning, the sun will come up over the lake and I will see its light over the house across the street. The dog that sleeps on my side of the bed will stir and I will get up and go downstairs to let her and her brother dog outside. Then I will make coffee. I will chart my day. I will love the people who love me and some that don’t. But my heart will be whole and mine and happy for the day in front of me.
It wasn’t always this way, but it is now.
The city police ticketed homeless people camped at a commuter lot and then said, “oops,” as if they were actually sorry but what they’re sorry about is their strategic error, not their intent. It’s too long to explain, but there are people in Milwaukee living in tents and RV’s at commuter lots which is distressing to see, distressing in different ways depending on how you feel about homeless people. Anyway, police made a big show of their intent to boot people last night only to retract the threats this morning. It’s always a great policy to cause great fear and anxiety among people who are already homeless. Especially in the winter. Especially when there are no shelter beds and there are no warming rooms open. So, I’m awed by that – what is it, heartlessness?
At a meeting this morning in a senior center, I casually asked if there was coffee anywhere. And in minutes there was a coffee pot, creamer, sugar, and cups brought in and put on the table, all obviously having been scrounged from around the building, and I thought, it would have been okay to have said no, sorry, but instead the instinct was to create coffee, which to me is hospitality. And then I wanted to drink three cups of coffee just to show my appreciation.
Yesterday, while I was eating lunch with friends, a man walked up to me who I had not seen in nearly thirty years. By the time I left the lunch place, I’d hugged this man three times, the last, whispering in his ear, “Some people are so meaningful.” It’s not possible to explain.
My bilateral cochlear implant life is going okay. People ask how I’m doing and I say okay because I always say okay. And then I try to explain how sounds in the new ear are tinny, like people would know what that means, and that my brain is still trying to weave the connection between my two ears. I don’t tell them that while I am grateful for the eighteen new electrodes in my left cochlea, hearing is still work. A woman wearing a mask standing several yards away asked me a question over and over again yesterday and I wanted to hold up a sign that said “Don’t talk to me. Whatever you’re saying is too much trouble for me to hear.” It’ll get better.
I’m wanting to write a story called “Prison Town.” But it would be in a man’s voice and that gives me pause. I just finished a story about a man fishing with his daughter which I wrote from the dad’s point of view but it felt comic-book like – you know, how a typical dad would talk. Writing it made me realize how divorced I am from a man’s internal life, how a man thinks about things, so I fall back on a man’s perspective just being a couple of degrees tougher than my own. I think there’s more to it than that.
Dogs who wear blue scarves
Forget their dog yard howling
For just one short day
It took months before I could believe it. The man across the street had died.
I should have figured it out the first morning Charlie didn’t come walking down his driveway at the stroke of ten, wearing a trench coat and pulling a little suitcase on wheels. Thinking about it now, it seems he also wore a cabby hat. If he hadn’t, I’d remember his hair, whether it was gone or grey. But I don’t so there must have been a hat. And it had to have been a cabby hat because it wasn’t a knit cap or a fedora. A cabby hat and his trench coat buttoned up to the neck, unless it was summer and then he wore a bright red sport coat.
Charlie was a very mean guy. So much so that I would wait until he’d returned from his morning walk with his little suitcase on wheels before I ventured out to take my dogs walking. I didn’t want to risk meeting him on the street. He’d stop and stare like he was about to pull out a pistol. Sometimes he’d yell at me. I never thought he was crazy. I just thought he was mean, a man who would pick up a kid’s soccer ball that had rolled on his lawn and stab it with a pair of garden shears.
For several days, I thought I’d missed Charlie’s morning roll-out. I don’t sit at my desk by the window every single morning, so it was possible to miss some days. But then there was a For Sale sign in front of his house and carpenters came to rebuild the front porch. A few years ago, Charlie had taken out the steps himself, leaving the porch floor four feet off the ground with no steps. I took it to mean that he was done with the pretense that he might welcome visitors. I hate you, the stair-less porch said, leave me alone.
I watched his people go in and out, his son and his son’s wife. They came with a lot of purpose, in and out of the house, up and down the porch stairs. I should ask them what happened to Charlie, I thought. They’re over there right now. I should just go ask them. “Hi, I live across the street, and I was just wondering what happened to Charlie. Is he all right?”
But I knew if I went across the street and stood on Charlie’s lawn, something I would never dare do before, it would be just seconds before I would want to tell them that he was a very mean man. “Your father was very mean,” I’d want to say and then I’d want to try to describe what it was about Charlie that made him so mean. I’d want to recount all the times he stared and yelled, the times he swore at me and waved his arms like I was a rabid dog about to attack, the times my son ran back across the street with his soccer ball clenched to his chest. “Charlie was going to take my ball!”
But what did they have to do with all that? Would I be telling them something they didn’t already know? Wasn’t it likely Charlie had been mean to them, too? Did I expect them to apologize, to feel sorry for me? Why deliver such a package of unhappiness? Wouldn’t that make me mean like Charlie?
The work on Charlie’s house goes on. Different trucks come and go every day. The For Sale sign is down so I guess new people own the house. Today, a dump truck filled to the brim with dirt dumped its load in the street and a little bulldozer took load after load up the driveway to Charlie’s backyard. I don’t know what they’re doing back there but maybe when it gets to be summer and we see the new folks in their yard, I’ll wander over and ask. By then, I’ll know that Charlie’s really gone.
Originally posted in 2016, just after Mean Charlie died. His house is now occupied by a large Orthodox Jewish family whose kids play outside in all weather, shrieking and laughing all the while. We told them once that they were the happiest family we’d ever met. Mean Charlie’s house has been redeemed.