Tag Archives: writing

20 Years Later

On Sunday, I sat on a plane that flew from Los Angeles to Newark. Flying always shocks me. It’s the take off, really. No matter how many times I do it, I still sit there, strapped down, picturing the pilot moving the throttle. Nose up, wheels up, wings up, and suddenly we’re at some unnatural angle going some unnatural speed at some unnatural height, and every time I think “What a feat of engineering and physics!” I become jealous of those tuned out on whatever device they’re allowed to have on or whatever movie they’re trying to download or whatever book they’re reading. The plane levels off, and about 45 minutes to an hour in, I’m able to relax—sort of—and crack open a book, though I’ve learned that reading while doped up on Klonopin means not remembering what you read once you’re off the plane. If it’s a smooth ride, I relish the view from 36,000 feet.

I had to make this flight (I have walked away from the gate before) because on Monday, I was scheduled to participate in a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—West Village, to be precise. I had attended a reading at this venue last year. It’s a wonderfully classic Beatnik kind of space, a basement below a restaurant that is narrow and dark with a small stage draped by a red velvet curtain and doused with bad lighting. If the cafe allowed smoking down there, none of us would have been able to breathe, for there are no windows.

The participants were from the inaugural Cuba Writers Program; I was one of six readers. I read a piece that was recently published in Catapult about a waiter I met in Havana. His name is Alexander, and he got me cornflakes when I was feeling sick. We need more Alexanders in the world.

This was my first public reading. I was told I did an “excellent” job, and even came across as funny and engaging. People I didn’t know came up to compliment me. On stage, I could sense the audience was enjoying the piece, so I started to relax into my own words, and reading your own words aloud always sounds different than writing them. Whatever happens with my writing career, at least I can say my first public reading was in Greenwich Village to a standing room-only crowd, and that the audience liked me.

There was an after-party a few blocks away at this writer’s apartment. He organized the event and lived on Bleecker Street. If you don’t know New York City, Bleecker Street is, or at least once was, the heart of Greenwich Village. I lived at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Street 20 years ago, and as we were walking to this party, we walked past my old building. We also walked past the CVS pharmacy that I had once signed a petition to help keep out. The Grand Union where I used to grocery shop was gone. Bleecker still had record shops, a few loud bars, cafes, and a tattoo parlor, and maintained that noisy, gritty vibe I remember when living there. New York University is right there, so the neighborhood teems with students, and 20 years ago, I had been one of them, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.

The party was held in this gorgeous apartment filled with gorgeous mid-century furniture protected by several large, clean panes of glass windows overlooking Lafayette Street, a north-south road that takes you into Chinatown, Little Italy and the rest of the Lower East Side. The street is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and I wondered what he would have thought of this big, garish thruway with its giant billboard about a film that sort of, kind of makes fun of war, because those big, beautiful windows offered a clear view of that promotion.

A couple of strange things were going on in my head that night, and this is without wine or Klonopin. One, that just the day before, I had been in Los Angeles looking out at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory and palm trees through large windows long overdue for a cleaning. That had been my view for 10 days. Two, that I was a guest of a man who had lived in this stunning apartment for the past 23 years, and that 20 years ago, he and I and unknowingly been neighbors, unaware that in two decades, we would meet at an airport in Miami. I wasn’t invited to such parties 20 years ago, where accomplished people hung out, drank wine, talked about books, and could take in the view from wherever they stood because the view was everywhere. I was a bit of a wreck 20 years ago, very bitter about a family court battle I had been dragged through, completely broke, borrowing money from an ex-boyfriend generous enough to help an ex-girlfriend, struggling to make ends meet and to stay focused on my studies at NYU. In July 1996, I dropped out of the NYU journalism graduate program and got a job at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, basically applying my degree before I had it while earning a much-needed paycheck. I was 12 credits shy of finishing my master’s, and never went back to complete it. I do not come from an educated family, so no one was around to advise whether dropping out to take a newspaper job was a good idea or not, which means for a 23-year-old, I was quite free to chart my own course and make my own mistakes. And I did. No one stood around grooming me for success, as I see so many parents do with their children now, and as we gladly do with our 12-year-old daughter.

For years, I felt hugely embarrassed about being an NYU dropout, and for being the emotional and financial mess that I had been in my 20s. My roommate and classmates were A students from upper middle class families who summered in South Africa and Germany, who took unpaid internships at large-city newspapers because they needed experience, not cash, while I sold flowers for $8 an hour at the Union Square farmers’ market, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite jobs ever. At age 23, I lacked just about all the things my peers had to become successful. If my 43-year-old self could have talked to my 23-year-old self, she would have said “Chill, sister. It’s going to be a weird road, but an interesting one, and you’ll get there, just not in the same way your classmates might get there.”

Walking by all those purple NYU flags that dominate Greenwich Village didn’t affect me Monday night. It used to, whenever I was in Washington Square Park or bopping around MacDougal Street to meet a friend for lunch. I had enjoyed myself on stage. People whose names I don’t remember praised my work. I was a writer reading in Manhattan heading to a party at the fabulous apartment of another writer. I felt my own kind of take off. Either it was the jet lag or maybe New York was softening towards me. New York City is not easy on anyone: writers, actors, musicians, people in general. A colleague of my husband’s recently left New York for L.A., worn down by the city’s frenetic pace and stress junkie tendencies. We’re looking to move to L.A., too, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be packing up just as New York decides to like me after all.

On Privilege and Travel

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This year, I had the privilege to travel to some fancy places where people live well. I live well now, but I didn’t grow up with money, and when you cross classes, when you weren’t born into the world you currently live in or the ones you occasionally visit, you feel that gulf more acutely. What people with money or born into money might take for granted is that money permits mobility. And sitting still sucks. Feeling left behind sucks. In high school, I was the only student in my French class who did not go on the bus trip to Quebec City because neither one of my divorced parents could afford to send me. There’s immobility for you—I literally sat at home while my classmates walked around Quebec, took in the sites, and practiced their French with very patient waiters at the city’s mid-level restaurants. In college, and during my twenties, there would be more financial troubles to come, including an expensive yearlong family court battle that would take a long time to dig out from. The household was too much of a mess to consider vacations or even weekend getaways. Travel—and really, experiencing the world in general—was not encouraged.

Which might explain why I couldn’t wait to get out on my own. (And how in a three-year period, we visited Quebec City—twice—and you should, too.)

Fast forward twenty-something years, and between March and May, I had a nine-week stretch where I went to four countries, one with my family and three on my own. This isn’t my norm any year. I visited Zurich, Switzerland; Positano, Italy; Exuma, the Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. I came home wanting more. I am currently reading Elisabeth Eaves’ book “Wanderlust”, and early on, she references Thomas Jefferson warning his nephew that “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.” Jefferson seemed to be suggesting that travel triggers insatiability. After four countries in nine weeks, this feels painfully true. I’d like to say that I am enjoying a relaxing summer surrounded by the comforts of home, which I am, that I’m not in any rush, no planes, trains or buses to catch, but the reality is that on quiet, unstructured days, my mind drifts to where I’ve been and where I haven’t been. Sometimes I wonder if this is old wiring, of growing up in a household I didn’t want to be in, of not being able to afford things, and thinking about what to do and where to go next.

Unlike Ms. Eaves, I didn’t wander the world for years, and I applaud and envy those who do. I traveled in fits and spurts when I had some cash, often thinking “I didn’t yet go here” or “I haven’t yet tried that” but maybe my problem is that I’m still thinking like a 23-year-old. Maybe my 43-year-old self should just chill and say “Hey, look, at least you had the foresight to get up and see as much as possible whenever possible even while being discouraged to do so. Go you!” We need to learn to be kinder to our different selves. I am still learning this. I also need to recognize I won’t get to go everywhere, I won’t get to experience everything, but I have gone to many places and I have experienced many things, and there’s more to come. Did I backpack the world? No. Did I ever live without an address? No. But I’ve crossed socioeconomic classes and crossed oceans, and that’s more mobility than I ever could have predicted back when I was sitting at home, sixteen years old, waiting for my classmates to tell me how much they enjoyed Quebec. My daughter is twelve years old now, and, so far, has been to ten countries on four continents. She goes on class trips without issue. When she’s old enough, the world will be hers to backpack while I sit at home biting my nails, waiting for her emails and postcards. It sounds like such a simple middle class rite of passage, but to me, it will be a tremendous achievement.

I Stink At Blogging

It’s June 22, and I just realized that my last blog post was two months ago. Unless you’re a famous author like George R.R. Martin and know that you can blog whenever you feel like it, and hundreds or thousands of people will still read you, blogging is supposed to be more of a regular thing, something you maintain, like toned triceps or abs. My husband is good at this, this blogging thing, as is his colleague, Chuck Wendig, who seems to fire-breathe copy while I sit on my front porch, laptop open, shitting kittens over every word, fussing with phrasing, trying to recall everything Jim Shepard said when I was at Sirenland this past March. And maybe Chuck shits kittens over every word, too. He’s just more of a pro about it.

So the blog gathered dust (it’s also undergoing a redesign because I’m tired of all this blue). Meanwhile, I was traveling, writing, and getting published, so no complaints here. I had my first piece for AFAR, about camping in New York City. Then, there was an essay I wrote about a waiter I met in Havana last month. That same week, my first article for The Week was published, so I felt a bit splattered across the Internet in a short amount of time. Is this how Chuck Wendig and George R.R. Martin feel when their stories go viral (certainly more viral than I ever will), and when people they don’t know comment on what they wrote? It’s a cool, weird experience that I am still getting used to.

And while I haven’t been blogging, I have been reading—a lot. I finished Naomi J. Williams’ brilliant “Landfalls”, which I scored as a free gift for attending the annual One Story Debutante Ball. I didn’t know anything about Ms. Williams or the book; I literally picked it up at a table because I liked the cover—18th-century ships being bullied by moody green waves—and I love me a good journey story. I brought the book to Cuba with me last month, and had to keep putting it down because it was so good. Now I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s “LaRose,” which is equally gripping. In between, I tried reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s blockbuster novel “The Nest,” and got 104 pages in before I decided I can’t take reading about affluent white New Yorkers anymore and the shit storms they create for themselves. Same thing happened this past winter with Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s “The Ramblers,” though there, I only lasted 40 pages. Rowley’s blog is titled “Ivy League Insecurities.” I started wondering if I should have such an emotionally-charged, socioeconomically-loaded blog title, but only came up with “State School Struggles” before recalling that I had learned—after graduating from state school—that alliteration is for amateurs, and, really, just plain uncool.

I’ll try to blog more often for those dedicated 2.5 readers out there, but in the next few weeks, I have something I’m working on for The Scofield, a mega-thinky platform led by the intrepid Tyler Malone (thanks, Tyler!) and a few assignments about Cuba I gotta focus on, and writing about Cuba always makes me happy. I can’t explain it. I’m a blonde suburban mom who grew up in the Snow Belt, who studied French instead of Spanish, and I’m as gringa as they come. But Cuba feels right. Maybe I’ll blog about that someday.

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Dreaming of Italy

Outside, the Tyrrhenian Sea had disappeared into darkness. I could see this from my seat at the dinner table; one side of the restaurant was all windows looking out, but at the moment, there wasn’t anything to see except specks of light coming from neighbors’ windows. Nightfall in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is at all not like nightfall in suburban New York City—it’s a true, deep, inky dark, not that hazy, pink dark that clouds Manhattan and all its neighbors from sundown til sunrise, giving you the false sense the sun never slipped away at all, it simply changed colors. We were enveloped by the blackness curling around the coastline while inside the restaurant, hundreds of candles glowed, what felt like the safest place to be on Earth that night. At the table next to me, a woman from Texas, a writer who now owns an artisanal wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles, stood up, and in her soft Southern drawl, delivered an impromptu buzzed speech about the importance of writing, the commitment to the process. She then raised her glass and said loudly and passionately “Fuck money!”

Cheers and applause followed. She was speaking to a restaurant filled with writers, some published, some not, some quite notable, and others who were trying to carve a name for themselves, like myself. And it was easy then, just two weeks ago today, to lift my glass and chirp “Fuck money!” in response. I was surrounded by supportive peers at a five-star hotel for a writers’ conference. I was someplace ancient and magical. I had redeemed frequent flyer miles to get there, and had flown business class for the first time in my life just to make the claustrophobia I feel on planes more tolerable. I couldn’t really afford the event, but I was there. “It’s an investment in your writing,” my husband said in the months leading up to the conference, and there I was saying “Fuck money!”

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Most writers I know don’t earn much. The US Department of Labor says that in 2014, writers averaged about $58,000 per year. I’ve been on both sides of that figure in the last few years. My husband just finished edits on his fourth book, and tells anyone who asks—and it’s been asked several times—that he will never leave his day job as a writer for a mutual fund company. He loves what he does, and the company he does it for, and his job has changed our lives in ways we never thought manageable, allowing me to leave my office gig four years ago and return to full-time freelance writing and, more importantly, return to creative writing, something I hadn’t touched since college.

Three days after that candlelit toast, I was happy to be back home after 12 days in Europe, though, truthfully, I would’ve much preferred my family to fly out to Italy to be with me. I have no love for New York City. It’s the financial capital of America, and this toiling for coin dominates life here. In my leafy, snobby suburb, it is assumed everyone has a ton of money. I did not grow up with middle class comforts, yet years of working hard, paying off debt, and job promotions led us to a town of bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, human resource managers, engineers, and one neighbor who is a senior administrator for the United Nations. It’s a town of 60-hour work weeks and big paychecks. It is not a town where freelance writers live. But we were able to afford a small, aging house here because it offered the best education for our daughter, and an opportunity to build equity quickly, for houses in this town sell well. At home, busy not fitting in, I try to think of living here like I think of the conference in Positano or my writing in general, an investment. And investments are about time.

Meanwhile bills roll in, and the stress of not getting paid kicked in as soon as the jet lag wore off. I spent my first week home following up with clients, a daily constitution for most freelance writers I know. When I wasn’t doing that, I worried, which I’m very good at. There are often financial dry spells when working as a freelance writer, but it was difficult to have it follow such a luxurious week. Just days earlier, I sat inside a dreamy hotel sipping luscious red wine, nibbling on tuna carpaccio and talking with a Canadian writer about the restaurants down by the beach. Difficult clients, ignored emails, piling bills, and the snobbery of an overpriced, award-winning school district community were all four-thousand miles away.

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Perspective was easier in Positano, not because of five-star accommodations, but because of Positano itself, with its Easter-egg colored houses clinging to a cliff, its lemon trees in between homes, twisting toward the sun, everything appearing so old and still and lovely. Fewer than five-thousand residents live there. I saw some of their undergarments drying. Laundry lines crisscrossed several households; just outside my fancy hotel, someone hung men’s briefs and a large bra from a clothesline strung across a front balcony.

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The Amalfi Coast seduces. I get it now. This was my second trip to Italy (the first one being in March 1996), but my first trip going beyond Italy’s cities and to the smaller places. Our hotel, Le Sirenuse, is an exceptional place that deserves all the praise that’s ever been said or printed about it. And it has a magnificent outdoor swimming pool. On the Saturday morning I had to check out, I finally had a chance to try the pool. It had been a chilly, wet week in Positano, the sun often coming out when I had to be inside for a writer’s workshop. But a few hours before check out, the sun was strong; morning felt like early afternoon. I changed into my bathing suit and slipped into the pool. Many of my colleagues were still enjoying breakfast, and while they finished their eggs and cappuccinos, I had what now ranks as the best swim in my life.

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As a hotel pool junkie, this is a notable claim. I have swum in many fine hotel pools around the world; I have gone into debt to travel and experience these places just like I went into debt to travel and experience Positano. The conference and the people and the learning were unparalleled. I hope to attend again. But that swim—the warm water, the smell of the beach just a few steep staircases away, the sounds of the cliff waking up and beginning another weekend. Wow. Just wow. That’s the best I can come up with because you really had to be there. What else can I say other than I had the pool to myself for about 20 minutes, that gliding across the water, I realized Italy was letting me in on its secrets, and that was when I knew I had been completely seduced. I no longer felt guilty about the expense of being there. I wanted to swim until my skin pruned. I wanted to tell the taxi driver taking me to the train station that I had changed my mind.

Positano will balloon with tourists this summer. I was grateful to enjoy the region in early spring, when things are quieter and slower. Many shops were still closed for the winter; a gelateria across the street opened for the season during my week there. Other shops began to unlock its doors and hang their shingles. Poverty used to plague this area during the early twentieth century, and by mid-century, Steinbeck and movie stars were showing up. Being a charming fishing village wasn’t enough anymore. Positano depends on tourism, it needs travelers to be swept away by its beauty, and to keep coming back.

Steinbeck is right: “it’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I thought I arrived with all my practicality in check, and since leaving two weeks ago, I feel haunted by the place. I think about how vertical Positano is, how you ascend or descend to see things. Everything is up or down. You climb stairs carved into homes or the cliff itself or make your way along exceptionally narrow stone roads you share with Vespas zipping by, and if the stairs and roads have been washed by the day’s rain, you pray there’s a railing nearby to steady you. Public buses use these same roads, which blew my mind as I watched drivers handle hairpin turns with familiarity, not slowing down when I thought they should, but they knew Positano’s curves. I did not.

I hope to earn enough money to go back. Writing has been cheapened. Freelance gigs are harder to come by. Book advances are shrinking. Everyone jokes how there’s no money in publishing. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, health care and education have all gone exponentially up while salaries have flattened, editorial salaries being among some of the worst. It’s hard to make things work in the United States. In this election year, I hear many people say the American dream is dead. I want to say “Fuck money!” that I write for the love of language, that I write for the same reasons Steinbeck wrote, that I am compelled by passion, not income or status, which I’ve never really had anyway. And when I was in Positano, it was easier for those things to feel true. Now back in suburban New York, I fret constantly about money. I feel defined by my lack of it. New York is so expensive, and even robust paychecks don’t feel like enough. No one here hangs their laundry outside to dry. Landscapers are always around tidying up people’s gardens and yards. We own one car where most driveways have at least two, sometimes three, and often newer models. What your kid wears and where your kid goes to summer camp reflects how well you are doing. Here in my 1926 Colonial, around the corner from some newly-constructed McMansions, I am writing in my pajamas—as freelance writers do—and I’d like to lift my coffee cup and loudly proclaim “Fuck money!” but the silence that would follow would overwhelm me.

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

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Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)