Thursday, June 23, 2016

Red Line Prompt

This evening I asked my friend, the artist formerly known as the Sasquatch (and now known as Model Citizen Press), for a writing prompt. I have so many stalled stories piled up at home, it can be overwhelming, so I figured something fresh would be good. Mr. Model Citizen Press pondered and gave me the following words: sandals, manhole, and shopping bag (plastic or paper). I decided to do this as a roughly 45-minute writing sprint (in the spirit of Jane Espenson's Twitter-announced anyone-can-join sprints), and this is what I put together.

Be kind. Fiction is not my gift.

For my friends in DC: don't be offended. We've all had these days. Especially when it's 95 degrees outside and you're stuck on a train with the entire population of the world and all you want is to be a million miles away.

(Oh, and if you don't like profanity, fair warning!)


Red Line

Jen hated Metro. She hated Metro with every fiber of her being. She hated the delays. She hated the overcrowded trains, the single-tracking, the fires, the smoke, the assholes who ate whole meals on board and left the remnants on their seats, the guys who manspread, and the women who take up an extra seat for their precious shopping bags. She hated peak fares and broken escalators and the Red Line in particular.

Today Jen's Metro rage was fueled by the girl behind her who had propped her feet up on the top of Jen's seat, trapping her hair under a dirty-sandaled foot. She counted to ten, and then counted to ten again. She put her hand behind her head to try to free her hair, but she couldn't get the foot to budge. Jen knew the girl had headphones on since she could hear Taylor Swift dumping another boyfriend and throwing popstar shade at muffled high volume.

"Fuck you, Taylor," Jen muttered. "Fuck you and your whole squad."

The girl got off at Tenleytown. Jen pulled her hair into a scrunchie and sighed. The train disgorged a flow of commuters and students, and a new horde teemed inside. A nearly tangible wave of humidity and B.O. poured on board with them. Jesus. Not even 8:30 and some sorry bastard already smells like a corpse in Hell. That'll be a fun workday.

She scanned the crowd, observing women in summer dresses, men in rolled shirtsleeves, and other men in suits. Who could wear a suit on a day like today? 95 degrees outside. No mercy. The smelly dude has to be one of the suit guys. 

Between each station, the train would stop in the tunnel, lights flickering. Jen closed her eyes and heard the rapid rush of a northbound train, dank air whooshing in through cracks in the doors and windows. No one spoke. Everyone just waited in the dark, each in their own thoughts, their own Metro rage, their own to-do list:

Number One: get the fuck off this train.
Number Two: get the fuck off this train.

Farragut North was just a couple of stops ahead. Jen just needed to hang on to there and then it was a short walk to work. Past the coffee shop, past the CVS, past the alcove that always stank of urine, past the same homeless man who always said "Good morning, beautiful!" to every woman who passed by. Past the hotel where visiting politicians bedded expensive whores, up the block by the Indian carryout and over to her office. By then, the Metro rage would be gone, to be replaced by a quiet work rage as she tapped at a keyboard all day, making small talk with people she barely knew.

I hate my life.

She wanted to be an artist. She wanted to make art, be creative, and still be able to afford groceries.  She was hot, she was sweaty, she was miserable, and she wanted to leave the city. She wanted out now. Gone, gone, gonzo, gone. Out of here, making art. Right fucking now.

In that moment, in the unmoving dark, in a hot tunnel north of Dupont Circle, Jen had an epiphany: today would be her last day at the officeher last day on Metro, her last day in the city. Screw you, DC. She had enough cash in her account to get out of town. She didn't have much stuff to pack. No plants, no pets, no boyfriend. Why the hell not?

The train started up, jarring everyone on board. As it pulled into Dupont, the lights flashed. "This train is out of service." A chorus of swearing, muttering misery filled the car and everyone filed out, resigned to another Metro issue. Jen pulled her messenger bag across her shoulder and exited with the rest of the throng. For once, she didn't care. She was leaving. She was done.

Jen pushed through the packed platform to the escalator. She'd walk to her last day. What's ten minutes late matter if you're quitting on the spot?

She blinked in the sunlight as she climbed to the surface. A middle-aged man played "Tears in Heaven" on a guitar at the top of the escalator. Jen filled her lungs with city air. Last day, breathe it in. The air was a little... acrid.

She stepped into the crosswalk, headed toward Mass Ave, and the ground erupted beneath her feet. Jen flew 20 feet, 30 feet above the city. "Ass over teakettle," her mom would have said. Flames rose up behind her like rocket fuel in her wake.

She never saw the manhole cover below her, propelling her skyward. Oh, fucking DC. Jen thought her last thought.

"Goddamn exploding manholes." The forensic tech lifted a corner of the white sheet and frowned at the broken form underneath. "When the fuck are they gonna get this shit fixed, huh?" The cop next to him shrugged and looked down into Jen's lifeless eyes, frozen in her moment of surprise.

"Jesus, what a mess."

"Yep," the tech nodded his head pulling the sheet back over Jen's face. "Like goddamn abstract art. Goddamn masterpiece."

"Fuckin' DC."

FYI: exploding manholes is an actual thing in DC. For realz.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Shadow of a Bird

This morning, there was a minute in my normal commute when my heart froze in my chest and my mouth went dry. 

I was on Canal Road, stopped in traffic, smiling at the wild lilacs that have started to dot the hillsides lining the road winding along the C&O towpath. The bright blue sky suddenly darkened with a form outstretched across the lanes of traffic. Wings. There were great wings above me. I remember thinking initially it was a trick of the light and just a huge turkey vulture circling carrion along the road. Deer, a fox, a raccoon... Canal Road isn't a friend to distracted wildlife. 

The shadow grew, and as it passed in front of me, I realized it was the shape of a plane far too low above the rush hour world. I could see the shape of the plane shadowed on the pavement and the roofs of the other cars. I saw the woman in the car next to me look up at the jet, too, her jaw dropped open. The path the jet took was unfamiliar. I watched the wings dip and rise, and I held my breath as I waited for it to make the turn along the Potomac to begin approach for Reagan National. I'm sure it was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like forever as the plane continued on a route that made me grip the steering wheel harder than I had in a very long time. Finally, it vanished from my view behind the office buildings of Rosslyn. I rolled down my windows and turned off the radio. There was a stiff breeze that hit my face. Still unmoving in traffic, I waited. I didn't try to catch the scent of lilac on the air. I just waited. 

And nothing happened. Not a damn thing.

A plane, probably buffeted by high winds far above my head, made a very awkward, low approach (way too damn low) to an airport. Happens every day. Maybe it was a young pilot. Maybe it was just the wind. Maybe both. Probably a hell of a lot of silent passengers up there, white-knuckling the approach right along with the crew. Probably a lot of relieved humans when the landing gear touched the tarmac by the river.

Down below, some commuters in little metal boxes on a congested strip of concretecommuters who remembered the days after 9/11had a momentary flashback to the days of chaos, the days of seeing smoke rise from the Pentagon, the days of fear and sadness.

And then we breathed. In. Out. In. Out. The light changed, and we flowed into lower Georgetown and to our destinations across the District. Just another day. Nothing to see here. Move along. It bothers me that such a simple thing can shatter your concentration and put you in state of alarm and worry so damn quickly. Humans are resilient... generally tougher than we give ourselves credit for. But our memories are long, and just as the scent of the wild lilacs on Canal Road can return me to childhood, the shadow of a metal bird can carry me back to things remembered with no happiness. I thought about it through my morning meetings.

Resilience. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Love. Loss. Hope. All the little pieces that make up the experience of a human soul. How quickly we move between those. Moment to moment, day to day.

Tomorrow, I will focus on hope. Hell, maybe I'll even take a different route to work. Today ushered in a time of change for me at work, and the promise of new and good experiences lies ahead. Over the weekend, a very dear friend told me to let go of some difficult and frustrating elements of my past. "Don't let people who've harmed you continue to rent space in your head," he said to me. Damn good advice. I need to take it. Hopeful day, no shadows, here I come!

Friday, April 01, 2016

I Suck at Poetry: the Cherry Blossom Edition

It's National Poetry Month, and readers of my blog know that I suck at poetry. That said, I will continue to produce sucky poems because I enjoy it. :) For the first day of this month, I offer some words about our local Japanese sakura superstars in all their fleeting glory.

The cherry blossoms were at peak bloom this past weekend here in DC. In my neighborhood, north of the city, the trees are on a delayed timer, only now kicking into full gear. On my way home from work, I sometimes take side streets to see trees off the beaten path. I came across one block recently 
that was loaded with my favorite variety of cherry tree: weeping cherry. SO cool. I grew up in a house with an enormous weeping willow out back, and seeing tiny cherry blossoms dot long graceful whips of branches is like seeing my childhood back yard dressed up for prom.

I was thinking of that earlier this week when I was stuck in some motorcade/police action/tourist traffic jam on 16th Street. I was outside the swanky St. Regis Hotel, singing along with the Hamilton cast album (don't get me started, it's a wonderful addiction, a musical sickness) when the wind started to whip up. The hotel (and the AFL-CIO building on the next block) has weeping cherries in full bloom lined up along the crescent drive outside the lobby. In the wind, the arched tree branches danced and they started to remind me of girls in wide skirts at Seven Oaks in "Gone with the Wind," waiting for their beaus to escort them out on the floor for a twirl. It made me wish I was skilled in animation. I could have filled a ballroom with sweet-petaled dancers.

The St. Regis Springtime Ball

The weeping cherry sisters
Sway and twirl
Outside the grand St. Regis

Good southern girls
In gowns of pink
And softest, purest white

Our hoop skirt debutantes
Bloom and swish at the
Wind Gust Cotillion.

Now watch them curtsy
See them blush
At every tourist walking by.

Monday, March 28, 2016

In Your Hand

My parents learned to write in the 1920s. Their handwriting bore the distinctive characteristics of those educated in the Palmer Methodprecise, graceful, and easy to read. My mother's handwriting was always better than my fathers. Her lines and loops swooped in a lyrical manner, while my father's was harder edged, with tiny spikes from a tremor in his hand that reminded me of a seismograph charting little earthquakes. His hand shook more as he aged, as had his mother's before him. I can still picture him spilling a cup of coffee like a sprinkler head as he brought it to his lips. I have the same tremor developing in my right handanother legacy I didn't need, like my wide nose, high blood pressure, astigmatism, or my ridiculously thick Irish peasant legs.

For now, my handwriting has not been afflicted, although I know it's only a matter of time. I have a measure of vanity about my writing, which I think is fairly graceful when I'm not in a hurry. (My Cyrillic penmanship is pretty darn nicenicer than my English script, honestly. Just not much call for it these days.) For now, I'm grateful to retain what I have. And, while I have the flaws of my father's side of the family, I echo my mom's side, too. As I agemuch like catching a glimpse of my mother's face as I pass by a mirrormy script looks more and more like mom's handwriting.

Pусский язык самый богатый в мире!

All of my siblings have beautiful cursive and equally cool printing. My late brother Ed had that same spiky cursive that marked our father's writing. I can't remember if he had our father's "architect style" printing, too. It always looked like he was marking blueprints with each letter. I don't think any of us inherited that style. My sister Elizabeth is an artist by nature, and her writing style radiates a very unique creative vibe. I was always envious of that. Her script is half cursive, half print, and unmistakably her own. I am envious.

Back in the dark ages of technology, I was fascinated by the "make your own font in your own handwriting" offers you found in in-flight magazines. Wow! Your handwriting appears on your computer screen! Of course, back then, it was an expensive novelty for executives, and it cost about a hundred bucks. A pipe dream for youngsters with shallow pockets. Now, you can get your font for five bucks (or, hell, for free) in a couple of minutes. Print out a template, draw your letters and numbers, scan them in, and boom - five minutes later, you have your own chicken scratch alphabet to use in Word. It's true. I've done it. I wasn't satisfied with that I created because I couldn't manage the right level of consistency in what I inked into each block. That said, when I use that font, I know it's me.

That's one of the things I love about handwritten letters. I know which one of my friends or family has sent me card or letter just by seeing a few letters on the address. The angles, the curves... how they formed my name or theirs... Who uses cursive? Who prints? Is it in big, bold letters? Is it in the slanted lines of a southpaw? Is it elegant, rounded, and utterly European?

I love that, even though we may have learned with the same techniquein some cases, in the same classroomour letters flow from our hands in forms as unique as the fingerprints on our pens. It is you. Simply you.

And you sent yourself to me.

I feel increasingly like every postcard, every letter, every greeting card written in someone's own hand is an expression of love and appreciation. It may be the lasting love of friendship, the family update, a platonic dialogue that lasts a lifetime, the words of passion between far-flung lovers... it's all pretty damn cool. It's also a piece of art you chose to make and give away. It's not a throwaway text typed carelessly into your phone and autocorrected into nonsense or condensed into 140 characters of abrupt one-liners.

A handwritten missive requires time and attention. Each stroke, each dot, each line, each misspelling you try to cover up with a smudge of ink carries some of youyour creative DNAto the recipient.

A few months ago, I found a massive stockpile of postcardsmany from the 1980sin a box in my closet. At one point, I'd decorated a whole wall in my first Moscow apartment with them, blu-tacked in untidy rows from floor to ceiling. Now, they needed new homes. With the postcards, I found a heap of old, unused postage stamps in various denominations. I had to look them all up on the USPS website, year by year, to see how many I needed to mail a postcard now.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and just asked who would like a postcard, complete with genuine handwritten message. I wasn't sure if anyone would take me up on the offer, but, in the end, I sent out nearly 100 postcards, each with a personalized message in my own scrawl. After a couple of weeks, I started getting postcards in returnsome in familiar hands I'd known for 20, 30, 40 years, while others were new to me. These new "voices" were friends I'd only ever known online, their words typed on screens in the same bland fonts we all use online. It was a revelation to see a lovely piece of these individuals that was hidden in the noise of social media. It was, in a way, like meeting them face-to-face. In delicate letters, bold prints, and even in the goofy script that made me squint, there was a warm, intimate moment that was sweet, kind, graceful, and exciting. Each postcard was a gift. And I was grateful.

It makes me sad to know that some kids don't learn cursive at all anymore. Who needs it? Ugh. Yeah, I've heard the argument. Just time wasted on a dead skill. I hear Obi-Wan Kenobi in my head referring to a lightsaber as "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," and I think of a pen in that same way. A weapon for the sharpest words, an arrow to the heart of the sweetest love... who will read the letters of an earlier age if no one can read the text? Are we in such a hurry that we cannot stop to express thoughts with our unique marks on the page? Truth is, I don't care if someone uses the finest calligraphy, a scrawl, or block letters, if they send something handwritten. Share yourself. You have no idea how much impact a card or letter can have on someone going through tough times.

You are loved. You are remembered. You are not just a birthday reminder on a Facebook calendar. You mean something to me, and I wanted you to have something more than a catalog and an insurance ad in your mailbox.

Old news: life is uncertain. None of us has any idea when the smile or word we share with someone we love is the last one. I'm not trying to be morbid, but there have been momentsmoments that increase as the clock hands spin the dial and I flip pages on my wall calendarwhen I've wished I had one more time for all sorts of things. A call with my mother. A trip with my sister. A discussion about pop culture with my brother. All gone now. But I still have cards and letters they wrote. I can feel them through impressions made in ball point ink on paper. I can hear them through those curves and angles. I know who they are, and they are not forgotten. Voices in blue and black on white and beige. All precious to me now.

I know we're all busy. I know carving out time to sit quietly and write a few words can seem like the bottom of the priority barrel. But we can all do it. Get some paper, grab some cards (I highly recommend handmade letterpress cards from Model Citizen Press and I admit to being 100% happily biased on that count), dig out the old postcards you never sent on vacation. Go to the library, sit outside on a sunny day, or hit your local Starbucks and get yourself a coffee. Pull out a pen, and write a few lines. Hand cramps from lack of use? Write one a day, or one a week, or a couple each month. You are a storyteller. We all are storytellers. Surprise someone. Tell someone something funny, something mysterious, just something about your day, or what they mean to you. Write your life. Indelible, uncommon, rare... because it's you, and there is no other you out there. Leave a little bit of your heart in a mailbox. Leave a little bit of your soul with a friend. I swear, you'll feel a rush when you let it out in the wild with a letter carrier. Just don't forget the stamp. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016



Random Thoughts at the Coffee Shop

9 p.m.

I'm looking through a coffee shop window out into the darkness and a wet, short March snowfall.The snow won't stick. It's not cold enough. But, in the brightness thrown by light poles across the parking lot, the white stuff is beautifulbig flakes that swirl and rain down in a snow globe shaker shower.

The coffee shop is humming with conversations in Spanish and Korean. Ringtones annoy. A baby burbles, counteracting the cellphones. A barista is aggressively squeezing the trigger on a container of kitchen cleaner. There can't be any left in the bottle by the time she's done. Despite the overdose of chemical freshness, I smell coffee brewing, and I know in the wet cold of the evening, I will carry that scent home with me, soaked into the knit loops of my scarf and the fabric of my shirt. I'm fine with that. I love it when I carry the smell of memory with me.

When I lived in Moscow, I loved arriving home after a weekend at the dacha, my clothes infused with wood smoke from the potbelly stove in the corner of the little living room. I would hold up shirts to my nose for days after returning to my apartment, breathing in the sweet, heady remnants of a good adventure. I closed my eyes and could hear a friend playing guitar, doing his best Vysotsky impression, and the sound of laughter from the small deck out back overlooking the river that separated us from the Young Pioneer camp on the other bank. The camp came alive and fell to sleep again every day with a bugle call we heard through the birch and pine trees. We would listen and stoke the fire in our cabin and curl up together in the dying lighta pile of friends disconnected from the chaos of the city just a few kilometers away, but deeply connected together for a moment before the week began again. I wish I had something saturated with that lovely smoke right now.

It's different here. No smoke. Just coffee. Not a bucolic and quiet setting like the dacha at Serebryany Bor. Yet I am with my friend, and that is good.

Traffic hisses on wet pavement outside. A chill rises each time the door opens with people arriving to buy overpriced lattes and Cherry Blossom frappuccinos. There is a red glow outside from the neon signs lining the strip mall. Clearly management wanted something uniform, and nearly every business has red neon signage to lure in customers. There is a large Asian community here, from Korea and China, and the signs remind me of a brief visit to Seoul many years ago, en route to Vladivostok. At night the city was dotted in crimson illumination, with red crosses rising into the darkness above the city's numerous Christian churches. I wonder if the red neon was chosen specifically for our local community, but I never ask. I don't want to appear rude or culturally ignorant. The signs are big and bright. They provide a constant light show, obscuring the stars in the sky with manmade glare.

I have an infatuation with neon. They are the carnival midway show of suburbia here, radiating warmth, but also tossing visual chaos and clutter at passers-by. Tonight, I'm fascinated with the one exception to the red neonan enormous green frog lighting up a yogurt shop across the lot. Framed by beer and sub shop signs on either side, the frog seems ridiculously out of place, yet refreshing against the monotony of the rest of the stores and cafes. It has bulbous eyes and reminds me of a mid-century kit-cat clock. I keep expecting his eyes to swing back and forth, tick tock, tick tock.


Before the night is out, I will snag his picture. My hand is shaky, and I am an increasingly awful cellphone photographer. I'll have to take a heap of photos in the hopes of getting one non-blurry needle in my camera haystack. No matter. It will amuse me. The same ten people who like all my Instagram photos will hopefully enjoy froggie in the window. Who could ask for anything more?

My vision is eroding. It's been encroached upon by a flaw in my design that first appeared when I was a teenager. Now it's eating my peripheral vision in nibbles and, sometimes, mouthfuls. I hate it when people walk down hallways at work with me and they are just a smidge too far away for me to keep them in my sight. It makes me feel awkward and uneasy. My vision loss is progressing, and I think of the bites missing as being eaten up by some little Pac-Man in my head. Waka, waka, screw you, buddy!

I take more photos now and draw all the time. Increased practice has not really improved the quality of my efforts, honestly. Doesn't matter. I snap away. I scribble. What I produce is distinctly mine. Not exactly a legacy to leave behindjust stuff I enjoy making and something by which my friends can identify me. "Yeah, that's her. Kinda blurry..."

Life is a blur. I just have to either speed up to see more of it or grow accustomed to life being a hum in my ears as it rushes by, unseen in my periphery.

Best speed it up, sister. Get with the program.  Don't let anything rush by. Don't miss out. Advice for us all, really.

10 p.m. Time to go.

They turned the frog light off.


Tomorrow, Scarlett. Yes, tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day, and that damn frog isn't going anywhere.

Yes, I looked up "Scarlett O'Hara + frog" on Google.
God bless Google. I knew you wouldn't fail me. ;)