Friday, August 12, 2011


In Boone, North Carolina, a three-mile track of narrow asphalt and iron bridges creek-hops and rolls past meadows, sports fields, the ruin of an old dam and the pale blue tanks of a sewage plant.  Start at the Armory, and you'll come first to the Equestrian Field.  It was empty as a Roman arena yesterday when I and my husband and our two dogs strolled by, its grass perfect, untouched, an oval platter.  The fence was freshly stained and smelled like biology class.  Joggers went around it, not through it, and passed us going in both directions.  A woman too heavy for her feet rested on a bench, then got up and tried again.  Another runner passed, and for a moment the air smelled of eucalyptus.  We aren't trees, but apparently we don't, from time to time, mind smelling like them.

At the first bridge we met a mother and her small daughter walking a tiny dog.  I asked what breed it was.  It looked like a pug had crawled inside the glove-box of a terrier.

"Oh," said the mother, "she's a Humane Society dog.  Great dog.  I think she'll find a good home."

"So you're fostering her?"

"No."  The mother stroked her daughters' curly hair, and the daughter, holding the leash, imitated her, bending down and stroking the dog's fur.  "We just like to stop by the Humane Society and take a doggie out for a walk.  They really appreciate it when you do that.  And it's so convenient, right here on the Greenway.  Except that now they're moving at the end of the month."

"That's a pity."

"Well no, not really.  We won't miss the sewage plant."

We waved and walked on, taking a path that led away from the main one and into the trees.  There we met a woman walking an old, gray-muzzled cattle dog off-leash.  She made a move to tether him, considerately, but we told her we didn't mind.  I asked where the trail came out, and she showed me where it joined the Greenway again.  The arm she pointed with was bright as a chalked sidewalk, tattooed with blue and yellow daises.  Her hair was wild, and it  looked as though she'd been lying on her side, dreaming.

At the power station was an old marker explaining how electricity came to Boone in 1915, lighting up a school and six residences.  I wondered what it must have been like to get that first surge.  The dam was nothing but old oak beams on the floor of the creek now, and the station a stone ruin that looked like a bombed church.  At the creek's edge we met two college students.  One was studying criminal justice, the other wanted to be a veterinarian.  Her, dog, a Blue Heeler-Aussie mix, was named Beau, and playfully fought our dogs to hold on to his own toy.

Around the next bend we started to smell sewage.  The breeze flushed the stink up our noses, that smell you're ashamed to recognize as so familiar, as your own, magnified and gone stale.  What a nuisance, we said.  And right along the Greenway, too.

"Although maybe we shouldn't fuss," my husband said, staring through the chainlink fence toward the cesspools.  "We're looking at what's probably the single greatest human achievement, ever.  It's what the whole of modern civilization rests on."

Right next door to the plant were the low, dilapidated roofs of the Humane Society.  It was easy to see why a move was underway.  The buildings and kennels were small.  The human stench too close.  Two young women came out leading a hulking white dog.  We stopped to say hello.  His name was Scout; he was a year-and-a-half old, and they had just adopted him.  It was sad, they said, how many dogs needed a home.  Then Scout pulled them off into the grass.  He had to use the bathroom.

The Greenway ends here.  Time to turn around and run the gauntlet of need and shame and power back to the arena and the Armory, with our dogs pulling ahead, sticking their noses in everywhere, judging how recent a mark was, and whether its architecture needed redoing.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I learned a new word this week: to "wallfish" is to bury or conceal wires behind a wall by means of creating a hole in it, and then hooking or fishing the wires up through it.  It's a mechanism for hiding what's messy, or for trapping what's live and dangerous in a safe place.  I have Andrew to thank for my new word.  He came to my house this week to install cable television in a room where wires and plugs had been lying around scattered like kelp with teeth.  The first technician who'd come to the house hadn't wanted the job, but Andrew was up for it.

"Sounds like in-house," Andrew said about the other guy.  "They're always looking for excuses not to do things."

"He said my cable wasn't grounded," I told him, "and it couldn't be done.  Are you not in-house?" I gathered that meant he wasn't someone who worked directly for the cable company.

"No, ma'am.  I'm a contractor.  But the ground's no big deal.  I'll do it, and they can come by and ground it later."

"If it's safe for you?"

"It's no problem.  Long as there's no lightning."

"Have you ever been shocked?"

"Not by our wires, ma'am.  But by other people's, sure.  Like the phone company.  Somebody calls in while you're handling a line, and man, it can make your arm go numb." He grinned.  Mischievous.

Andrew was maybe nineteen, cleanshaven as a bootcamper, hair like a Beatle's.  His accent was thick and smooth, butter melting in his mouth.

"Andrew," I said while he got his monster of a drill bit out, "are you from around here?"

"No ma'am.  I'm from Ruffin, North Carolina.  Tiny place.  Only one stoplight.  It's got lots of space.  It's nice."

"You like it better there than here?"

"I do.  But it's good work here, even if they don't pay us as much as in-house."

"But I hope they pay you well," I said as he got ready to crawl under my house in the narrow and the dark and the heat, so he could fish the line up.

"Did till a few months ago.  Then they cut my pay about thirty percent."

"But why would they do that?"

"I'm not supposed to talk about the company.  But they're trying to get rid of us independents, is my guess."

He disappeared, and a few minutes later a line appeared miraculously through the sheetrock.

He told me, when we were on the same floor again, that sometimes customers expected him to work in rain and lightning.  He wasn't supposed to work in storms, but the week before a man had wanted him to run an aerial between two twenty-foot poles with a driving front blowing in.

"So what did you do?"

"I told him his line wasn't grounded," he laughed.  "Sometimes, you know, you gotta find an excuse."

I asked him if he'd gotten much training for all the unexpected things he had to do.  He said he'd gotten a full eight weeks, but now the company was pushing trainees out into the field after only three.  "It's crazy.  Half the time I still don't know how to do what I need to do.  I go real slow to make sure I'm doing it right.  I don't know how these new guys are managing."

"You don't seem slow to me."

He was already checking my cable connection on his laptop.  I jumped back.  His machine had crowed--a rooster's lusty cockle-doodle-doo!

He grinned again.  "It's just telling me there's a work order update.  It used to be a woman's voice.  But I changed her to a rooster."

"Why'd you do that?"

"It sort of wakes people up.  One time I was doing a job at a church, and there was this prayer meeting going on in the next room, and they all had to come out and see if it was inside, it sounded so real.  Plus, it's a great conversation starter with customers who don't want to talk to me."

"Sometimes they don't want to talk to you?"  What on earth did they do? I wondered. Just disappear while a boy jabbed live wire through a baseboard or danced up a telephone pole?

But Andrew seemed perfectly capable.  He didn't even need me to talk to him, I realized.  He just wanted me to.

"Some don't want to talk to begin with.  But it gets them going."

He covered the hole with a plate and gave me extra wire.

"Do I owe you anything?"

"Nope.  It's already paid."

It was getting late.  "I hope this was your last job of the day."

"It was."

"I hope you won't have to work on the holiday."  The Fourth was coming up.

"I do.  Saturday too."

"Well Jesus, I hope you get time and a half."

"We don't."

He grinned and reminded me what number to call if I had any problems.  And I couldn't for the life of me understand, I couldn't see, I couldn't guess, what lay behind that easy smile.  The rooster gave out a last call, then was shut up in the laptop.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Grandmothers' Story

This week, a dear friend of mine lost her grandmother.

I lost my grandmother ten years ago.

My husband lost his grandmother ten years before that.

Grandmother Number One was named Marguerite.
Grandmother Number Two was named Anna.
Grandmother Number Three was named Cecilia.

One grandmother lived to be one-hundred-and-two.  She spent that last year of her life curled in a fetal position, blind.

Another grandmother lived to be eighty-six.  She spent the last year of her life not knowing where she was, a feeding tube slurping sea-sand into her stomach.

Another grandmother died shouting at the nursing home attendants. The place where her right leg should have been was the place where they set their black bottoms, instead.

"When you die you got to die!" she said flatly.

The grandmother who was blind grew up in a bordello.

The grandmother who lost her leg chased "the colored" off her property with a hoe.

The grandmother who didn't know where she was traveled halfway around the world to be with the woman she loved.

Two of them died without a wrinkle on their faces. (Beauty is that nurse who comes when you don't need her anymore.)

One of them was married to a wildcatter.

One of them (the racist) was hired to replace a first, dead wife with the same name.  (The children hated her.)

One--the one who traveled halfway around the world to be with the woman she loved--died on the morning of that lover's funeral.

They fill the ground, like stars.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Adult Swim

In Austin a few months ago, after one of my lectures on writing and creativity, a woman in her forties came up to me and asked if she could talk to me about her dream of writing a book about her experiences as an immigrant in America.  After chatting for a while, we decided to go and have a cup of coffee--my new friend was bright and articulate, the day was beautiful, and the setting (on wide, green Lake Austin) was energetic, with boaters and paddlers splashing all around us.  The chance to sit in the sun and talk about memoir was irresistible, so we settled down at a table, and she shared her story, both unique and familiar to me (as an immigrant writer) about feeling neither here nor there, neither one thing nor the other, unsure of home but somehow, slowly, more sure of the self that crossed fluidly back and forth between two cultures.  She told me her book would begin on an airplane . . .

She asked me to tell her everything I knew about undertaking such a project (she was a tax specialist, and this was the word she used) and what it felt like; I remember telling her that the journey was long, required a great deal of passion and doggedness, and would take her through not just intellectual but emotional highs and lows.  We talked about what she read, and what she liked to read.  She'd never written anything creative before, she told me, or taken a creative writing class, but she had always believed, with hard work, she could do anything.  She was so self-possessed I didn't doubt her for a moment.  We parted with smiles and hugs, and agreed to stay in touch.

Last week we spoke again, over the phone, and I was curious to hear how she was feeling about her project.  She told me flatly she'd given up on the whole idea.  After talking to me, she said, she'd admitted to herself that what she'd been carrying around in her head all these years was the fantasy of publishing a book--not the job of actually writing one.  After our talk, she said, quite confidently, she'd understood she didn't have the patience to do it, the will, and it was time to let the fantasy go.  She said it felt wonderful.  Like a boulder lifted from her shoulders.


A few weeks later I sat with another woman in her forties, an old, dear friend from high school whom I hadn't seen in ten years.  We had dinner, and at first things were a little stilted, as things tend to be when a lot of water has gone under the legs of the bridge.  Then finally we started talking not just about our successes, but about our many failures and detours and dead-ends.  She told me she had never felt like a very creative person, though once she'd thought she would do something artistic that would make her wildly famous, like be a singer.  She remembered, even now, very clearly the moment in her twenties when she realized it wasn't going to happen.  She'd made peace with it a long time ago.  It was fine.

But then, very recently and out of the blue, she'd decided that she needed to be creative somehow, because she (a lawyer) was somehow less than she should be.  So she bought every book she could find on throwing ceramic pots, and paid three thousand dollars to have a kiln installed in her garage.  After a few months, and after much contemplation of the kiln, she sold it.  Without ever having fired it up or touched a single piece of clay.  She'd realized that it was a fantasy; that she really wasn't interested in doing what it took to make pots.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine.  Do you know what I really like?  Finding pots.  Finding things.  I love those treasure-hunting shows on TV.  That's when I realized I don't want to be stuck in one place, in my garage.  I want to travel.  I want to find unexpected things."


One day I woke up and decided I needed to take swimming lessons.  My mind had been seized, almost overnight, by the idea that I must swim the English Channel.  It was a persistent dream.  That I would become athletic.  Buy a one-piece, regulation, approved bathing suit.  Register with the Channel Swimming Association.  Train for months on end.  Arrive in England.  Hire a pilot boat.  Battle the Channel garbage, the tankers, the current to get to France (which tries to pull you away, I knew, just as you begin to reach it).  Return triumphantly and, as is the right of every, and only, successful Channel swimmers, sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

I read every book I could find about the crossing.  I bought goggles.  I discovered I had no natural talent for the crawl, that I was sorely lacking in bodyfat and buoyancy, and also that I didn't like and was in fact afraid of depths I couldn't reach with my big toe.  I discovered, in fact, that I don't like to swim for more than thirty minutes at a time, and prefer keeping my head out of the water, even then.  I started to let the dream go.

It didn't feel like a relief, though.   More like a death.  The death of a universe, alternate though it might have been.  The collapsing of a star.


There is an art, of course, to relinquishment.  It's often an act of will, not just a giving up.  A creative leap.  This is not my place.  Jump.  Here I go. 

I'm not quite sure I've mastered it.

I looked today, again, at open swims, places to train in lakes and bays and oceans.  I haven't been in the water since last summer.  I don't like cold, you see.  I won't swim in the winter.  (The Channel is forty degrees.)

When my new friend in Austin had told me it was my describing to her what it took to write a book that had driven the idea completely out of her head, I'd said something like, "Oh my God!" and made a sound that approached blanching over my mobile.

"No, no, don't feel bad," she'd consoled me.  "It made me see more clearly what I really want to do.  And what I really want to do is just start working less.  And have more time for myself.  That is really the dream.  The dream of time."

I want more time.

I want to be able to travel.  To find things.

I want to sign my name on that ancient pub wall.

In the dream, there are clues.  But then we always knew that.

I want to sign my name.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone