Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Tonight, I did something I haven't done in years: I attended a meeting of a writers' group. With goading from the hubby, I was able to meet some new people, not freak them out too much with my profession, and maybe stimulate some creativity...? (At the present moment it is excruciating to write creatively because the fragrance of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies is wafting across the tables in the cafe. And why are they baking cookies 45 min. before closing time?? Cliches be damned, I want one!)

Writing has been a part of me since I was six and paid tribute to my soon-to-be aunt-by-marriage in a poem. Elementary and High School were years of stories, fantasies that I related to my baby cousin or scribbled in a notebook or handed in as English assignments. It was fun to invent, to play with words, to be an observer and then distill my memories into characters and actions. I remember taking the city bus with my mother, to shop downtown, and thinking about the stories of each of the other passengers. Who were they and what was going to happen to them?

In college I considered becoming a journalist; I wrote for the newspaper (my first assignment was an obit!) and edited the literary magazine. I wrote for the pleasure of it, drawing support from my friends who were also writer wanna-bes. Grad school was a long, long journey of technical writing which squeezed the joy out of the process; but then I married and my beloved but overly self-deprecating sister-in-law J, an avid reader and also a wanna-be, became my sometime writing buddy...I only wish both our lives were simpler so we could spend more time writing together!

When my kids started entering school, I found a writers' group in a nearby bookstore. We jelled, hanging together for about 6 years until a spat between a founding member and a newbie grew political. Choose sides? What was the point? Maybe the disintegration of the group was part of a natural process, but I grieved nonetheless, unable to find another group that worked quite as well.

A saving grace was a year during which I commuted to work by rail--see my previous entry on the glories of public transportation--and was able to spent some of my commute writing, writing, writing. I wasn't working on anything in particular, but the simple discipline of putting down thoughts, Crap a la Anne Lamott's suggestion, was invigorating. I pleasured in the act just as one might delight in daily exercise, the stimulation of a cognitive muscle that simply felt good good good. And now this job, where I am relegated to audio books while I curse the Turnpike and its traffic. The delight I found in those few commuting days where a broken-down vehicle put me back on the train (and begging for rides to work from colleagues).

I am unsure why it's so difficult for me to find the discipline to write daily, even a page, a paragraph of this blog...but it is nigh impossible (maybe it's the blasted paperwork I struggle thru daily which has destroyed my love of the written word?).

Tonight, one of the co-leaders chatted about NaNoWriMo--National Novel Writing Month, coming up in three weeks. Could I do it? I don't care about meeting any goals, word counts, or product; I simply want to write, daily.

I just want to regain that part of myself--the part that writes.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I have spent the last two days--very long days, at that--sitting in a seminar on the psychological treatment of insomnia. The fact that I have nodded off during the 5 pm sessions, TWICE now, was NOT intended to be ironic. It's more a reflection of what happens when one rises early, tussles with the local transportation systems, and the proceeds to sit, and sit, and yes, sit some more, with only intermittent trips to the coffee pot and the ladies' room. (Warning to the reader: I get to do this one more day, a day in which we have been promised that we will actually learn how to do the voodoo that if we do well, can improve the sleep quality of willing and cooperative patients. So more sitting and more caffeination awaits me.)

So to be out and about in the city this evening is a welcome reward. J and a friend are at a concert and I am ensconced in the coffeeshop across the street. We're in the hip, punk part of town, with an entertaining, continuously-changing show passing down the streets. (My goodness, that woman's leopard-print mini skirt is tiny. Hmmm.)

After all that sitting today, I felt the need for a stroll--good for the legs--and some serious people-watching--good for the mind. It was a humid evening, but as the day faded, glowing light illuminated the passing scene. Pleasant. Beautiful.

If only I had a camera...

To capture the two small Chinese-American children sitting on a stoop, a boy of about 7 and a girl, maybe 5 years old. They were folding placemats--those ubiquitous red-bordered Chinese Zodiac placements--into hats and paper airplanes.

To recall the lean, elegant black woman in a white pantsuit, astride a yellow motorcycle as traffic inched down the road.

Would the optical illusion work on film, the one of two uniformed police officers standing on the street corner with a smiling African-American man in a red plaid shirt towering over them? (He was actually a reflection in the window of a shop).

A camera would prove that I did not imagine the middle-aged couple--he in suspendered shorts with black-checked bandanas dangling from each back pocket, and a feathered cap on his head; she of the Pippi Longstocking braids in a wildly-printed dress, striped stockinged feet inserted in red Crocs. They were not an advertisement for the local German Bier Garten, but a pair of local residents out for a night on the town.

Maybe a photo would give a glimpse of the huge, amazing mosaics imbedded into the walls of area homes. The mosaics of found objects--dishes, painted tiles, mirrored glass--displaying the faces of and telling the biographies of neighborhood residents, focusing on the Zagar family. The Zagars are the artists who created Philadelphia's Magic Gardens (Google it!)

I could preserve the expression on the face of the chunky Israeli man, a 20-something, looking for "4th and Bainbridge, are you sure it's that way?"

A photo would reassure me that I had not imagined the bowler hat on the tall, lanky, moustachioed man in a white tee shirt and black suspendered trousers, smoking outside a tattoo parlor, looking like he had walked off the pages of some Edward Gorey Victoriana.

And it would record the activity in the adjacent airbrush shop, of the back of an overweight man, sketching on a white tee shirt with a pencil. Would it prove that he was glancing back and forth from the shirt to an unseen design grasped in his left hand?

I could prove that sadly, Chef's Market IS closed, a dusty, cluttered shell awaiting a new tenant. Now I can only imagine the crusty sandwiches and scented peaches I once bought there for a picnic lunch.

I could puzzle out why, oh why, was that 50-ish woman wearing a black long-sleeved baby-doll dress in the heat. And why her balding companion seemed so much older than she, in his striped golf shirt. And how that woman in those 8-inch gold heels managed to keep from being stabbed by her giant hoop earrings studded with spikes. And why that woman in the frayed blue quilted bathrobe still wore her red armband from the local psychiatric hospital.

And maybe I would photograph some of the trash bins, painted to resemble Maurice Sendak-esque monsters. Sometimes inanimate objects need a little attention too.

What I do have is memories, though, Snapshots of an evening spent in the city.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Highway Blues

I miss the train.

Not literally today (although I certainly have done that in the past). Maybe more correctly, I miss the person I am when I commute by train.

Because the train made me a much nicer human being. I'd arrive at work after a half-hour of precious me-time, time that I spent reading or writing or people-watching or even creating: menus, handwork, to-do lists, short-story ideas. Occasionally I'd chat with a co-worker or even a never know what might happen on the train.

But now I find myself dallying in the mornings, dreading the traffic clog that I know will await me at the turnpike entrance or exit, the endless jockeying for position between the semis and the SUVs and there's always some Mercedes/BMW/Jaguar driven by a fellow with an enormous ego who doesn't want to wait in line--he is, you know, more important than any of us grunts--and zips ahead, unconcerned about the college student in the dented hatchback he has pushed into the ditch. There's aggression and pointless horn-blowing (buddy, where are we supposed to go? All the toll booths are full up!).

It's gotten so that first thing, when a nurse coworker asks me, "What's up, Doc?" I have to answer with "my blood pressure" or "my stress level."

I've tried to mitigate the aggravation with books on CD--it's the only reading time I usually get and a way to make the 45 min+ drive feel like a little less of a waste of time--but that works only so far. It doesn't prevent other drivers from acting like jerks or the turnpike commission from shutting down a tollbooth during the morning rush.

I admit, the train isn't perfect either--having ridden the precise, spotless Swiss trains I am amused by what Septa refers to as its "on-time performance" give or take 10 minutes. Or how dreary the allegedly "new model passenger cars" appear. I can certainly point to times where we sat on the track in North Philly because of an accident further down the line, or the time we spent 45 minutes underground at Suburban Station and some riders became panicky and claustrophobic. But I could remain calm and immerse myself further into my book, my thoughts. I could tune out and not worry about having an accident--someone else could have the stress.

A co-worker who travels a similar route suggested that I try to drive the highways earlier in the day; he finds there is hardly any traffic when he travels at 6 AM. Which is lovely for him: he wouldn't have to rise at 5 AM and attempt to put makeup on eyes that are still closed. He's not falling into bed at midnight because a teen son needs a ride home from a friend's house, bills need to be paid, the last-minute supplies for a project have to be bought, and the ingredients for the next supper are getting prepped...

So I can start cooking when I get home after six and maybe we can eat before eight.

There's got to be a better way.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

No one can hear you scream

But that doesn't matter. The important thing is that I am screaming. And so is my 16 year old son. We are standing next to each other, looking each other full in the face, and screaming as loudly as as we are able. They are screams of amazement and delight and pure intense emotion that cannot be expressed in words. No one can hear us over the ambient noise, but we continue to scream until we resolve into laughter and exhilaration.

We are at the Wachovia Center, in the third row--I can't say we are sitting, because only a dead man could possibly sit at a time like this--and mere feet away, Pete Townshend's arm is windmilling over the strings of his guitar. We are so close we can see the part in Roger Daltrey's curls, now gray. Zak Starkey? He is hidden, hunched over his drum kit and blocked from view by the keyboardist, whoever that might be. The amazing lyrics of "Won't Be Fooled Again" swirl around us and I am convinced that Townshend is an absolute genius. Who else wrote social critique that was salient in the 70's and is still so appropriate in these waning days of Bush 43's administration? (Well, other than Douglas Adams?)

It's a little time-warping to be with my son as he discovers The Who for the first time, and I recall loving them way back when (I am still addicted to "Squeeze Box" with its humorous double-entendre lyrics). But I cherish the experience; it's a bridge between us. We don't need to be fixed to the roles of parent and child; we can be two people of diverse ages thrilled by the same experience.

Ending up in the third row was a bit of miracle as well. We bought our tickets last minute, and as thrifty folks opted for the affordable seats in the rafters. It's all about the acoustics, right? We commuted to the arena with a group of friends who would be sitting directly across the chasm from us. Once inside, the five of us (son, niece, their two friends, and I) peeled off to find our seats in the caverns; strolling down an alcove we were stopped by an usher.

"How many in your group? Five? Wait here." He went to consult with a supervisor standing nearby.

OK. We waited, curious. Had we done something wrong?

"Here, take these. Even exchange." The usher handed us five tickets to replace the ones we held. "Go down this hall, take a left..." I only half heard the directions. We descended two levels and milled around until we found another usher.

"May I see your tickets? Ah, right here." With a flattened palm he waved us down a short hallway. "You're in row C. Enjoy the show."

When you are close enough to feel Roger's can you NOT enjoy the show? We spotted our friends in the upper altitudes of the arena and waved sheepishly. They waved back, good sports despite their envy.

I wonder if I can trust my luck once again, three years later. Bob Dylan is coming to Philly next month, and we want to see him before he's dead.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

ISO inspiration?

I have no idea WHY, oh why, whenever I post to the blog I need to make it a novel.

How would I ever survive on Tumblr?

So it's June, and maybe my mid-year resolution could be to blog more often? Can I do it? If I keep things short, focused, topical...and limit my rants...maybe.

I've been at my current job over a year, and people ask me how I like it. Truth is, I love the patients, the families, the interventions, thinking about diagnoses and the "why" of behaviors. What is going on in the brain? And how can I best convey that to the person living with the condition...or to their family members?

I like my coworkers, too--my department colleagues are supportive, my unit buddies are fun and engaged and team players and caring.

But the paperwork is an albatross (can you let me have this one cliche? Pretty please?), clunky and annoying and such a poor use of my time. Time for a PDF hack, maybe, to make my life a little less painful.

And I do miss being a commuter, oddly enough. I make the most of my time on the turnpike, in the traffic jams, listening to several books-on-CD per week across the whole spectrum of genres. But I yearn for the time I had to write, to observe, to think. Yes, I don't get much time to think.

I was at old hospital this evening, for a volunteer committee meeting, and I miss the energy there, the opportunity to be progressive and innovative and to take chances. A part of me wants to go back. Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

After they hung his picture outside my office, I had to face my obsession.

I have a thing for gypsies.

The hospital where I work features an ever-changing art show. From November through January, the display was of new works, with the intent of selling them to support the artists and raise funds. I was tortured with two especially mundane pieces just outside my door: one which looked as if the painter had used the wheels of a toy car to apply colors to a black background; the other a freeform clay disk, glazed in shades of blue, with a plastic grocery bag caulked to its center. And your point would be...?

So I was much relieved when they were taken down. And then delighted to have him take their place: a portrait of Josef Zawinul, surrounded by snippets from his album covers. I learned he was a classically-trained musician, born in Austria, a founding member of the jazz group Weather Report, a keyboardist.

I looked into his deep-set dark eyes, studied his black hair and shaggy moustache, gazed at his coffee-hued skin, the seriousness of his gaze, his colorful skullcap. This was no typical Viennese. I was certain: this man was Zigane, a Sinti. A gypsy.

Memories of melodies floated through my mind: Zigeunerweisen ("Gypsy Ways") by Pablo de Sarasate, the Spanish violinist. Then a song from my childhood, an aria from an obscure operetta by Emmerich Kalman. I hum He' Cigany ("Hey Gypsy!") and gently sway to the tune. Ahem. Time to return to work.

On the bulletin board over my desk, there is a ticket stub from a concert by one of my fav bands, Gogol Bordello. I think of the lead singer, Eugene Hutz, a too-skinny Ukranian of Roma descent with a wild wardrobe, mussed dark hair, an amazing 'stache. And what does his band play? Punk. Gypsy Punk. Start wearing purple. Bring on the floral embroidered blouses, the full skirts, and the red suede boots. Caravan is comin'.

I think back to my college crush, a lanky Italian--tall, dark, and handsome to my eyes--who had a fondness for growing facial hair. He claimed to be Sicilian. Hah! I'm positive he was Cigany. Gosh, my son even had a doctor during his cancer treatment with eyes so dark that his pupils blended into his irises...which fit with his full head of dark hair and his olive skin. A Gypsy, I was sure. (He was that close?)

I open my desk drawer and there is a gourmet bittersweet chocolate bar waiting for me. I think about one of my favorite desserts, a Hungarian classic of chocolate cake layers filled with chocolate mousse and topped with a layer of chocolate icing. It's known as Rigo Jancsi, or more informally as "Gypsy John;" the mousse filling intended to represent the gypsy's complexion, the icing his dark hair.

The inspiration behind the cake is a bit of legend, a bit of history: in the 1870's, a young American woman, married to a Belgian prince, became infatuated with a gypsy violinist--Johnny Rigo--and being seduced by his romantic musicianship, abandoned her husband and children and ran off with him.

So as a wanna-be writer, what would be more fitting as a theme for my first novella?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Now what? Or maybe the journey resumes...

Stumbling around on the 'net last night, I came across a site listing writing prompts to inspire mere amateurs like me. Except that they all started with, "List your top 10...(favorite cookie flavors, phobias, most embarrassing dates, etc, etc.)"

Yeesh, people, I couldn't have come up with that on my own?

I rather prefer the rant, the improv, going wherever the ideas take me. It's the initiation that's difficult for me; once the fingers start typing, words and ideas come out line after line and it's actually more challenging to know when to stop and how to wrap up.

I suppose I could list my pet peeves here (when I'm trapped in a snarl of traffic on the turnpike for hours, as I was last week, every irksome detail instantly comes to mind and I could type away madly--if I had the laptop with me).

But there is always that trip journal I want to re-start. And the day to be documented is a low-key day: a transition day from land to sea. Maybe that works?

We rise early, complete the final packing of our bags, convene in the lobby awaiting our minivans. We watch the other cruisers mount the sleek bus, their bags being hurled in the hold beneath the seating area. Keep an eye on our bags lest they become intermingled with those travelers' belongings--we all have ID tags attached in advance, identifying the cruise line and the cabins. The other travelers seem more sophisticated than we are--a bunch of ethnics from Buffalo NY and suburban Philly, with gangly teens in tow and a hypercaffeinated 4 year old hopping amongst us.

The bus departs, clearing the way for two oversize vans to appear and we shuffle ourselves into two equal groups. Plenty of room, except for backpacks which are convenient and not, simultaneously. I can never figure that out--how a backpack is the best way to carry books and personal items since it prevents arm strain and is less likely to be left behind. And yet try to get into a car and they expand dramatically, crowding laps, getting dropped on feet, and generally being bothersome.

Our driver is a woman, looking to be of Hispanic origins, and she has an amazingly leaden foot. We zip along the motorway at speeds approaching 90MPH, leaving the official Crystal bus far behind. In addition to her hyperactive foot, she is quite the conversationalist. Well, my dad goads her on, asking her all sorts of questions about the UK, her heritage, the shuttle business, the port of Dover...I lose track of the topics they cover and instead focus on the delightful place names of Britain, pointing out the more amusing ones to the kids.

It seems easily two hours, maybe more, before the landscape becomes more rugged and I can tell we are approaching the White Cliffs of Dover. Decorated with the ruins of a castle, of course.

The Cliffs really aren't white; they weren't white when I saw them at age 18 heading to the ferry that would take me to the Continent. Today they are a creamy beige but still impressive as the blue waves crash against their base, over and over endlessly. We'll be on those waters soon. J decides that we must return to Dover, and soon, to explore that castle. Her transformation to Anglophile has been rapid and complete.

I don't recognize the port, despite having been there twice; I guess the world changes over 30 years? I am surprised that ours is not the only cruise ship departing; I had never envisioned Dover having the type of cachet that merits being a cruise port (equal to imagining Royal Caribbean departing from Penn's Landing. Sorry, can't be done). But it is old and new and somehow everything flows and we are in a newish blue painted building being welcomed by Crystal staff and having our passports and documents checked.

It's really happening. Wow.

My vision from now until the rest of the day is blue, aqua blue. The customer service center, the uniforms of the staff, the gangway, the tags on our suitcases. We board and the first order of business--is lunch. The deckside cafe is aqua blue and it is our first meeting with Kiko and the other staff, their smiles welcoming. Truly a feeling that all things are possible...want a Shirley Temple? Want two?

The breezes, gentle, cross the deck and brush over my arms. Instant relaxation. This is going to be some adventure.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Day Two

I narrowly escaped the house this morning: I first awoke at 8:02, squinted at the clock, still felt drowsy. My next glance at the clock revealed it was 9:56. Two hours later. It's been a difficult week with a lot of work stress; I believe I'm working hard but cannot manage to meet expectations in the 50 hrs I'm allotting. Matters were not helped by a late phone call from an insurance company inquiring about my credentials: "we haven't been able to contact anyone from your internship site" (circa 1990). "Of course," I respond. "It was 20 years ago. They're all dead." [For best effects, roll your eyes as you read that line.]

Additionally, I needed to dig through 11 months of charts--shoved into my desk drawer in a perfectly random order--to find notes from a patient I saw back in, um, July? In some ways I was grateful to be the only one in the office, blasting Beethoven at full volume, kneeling unshod on the dusty rug and tossing papers into piles while stapling madly. Better my co-workers not know what a holy disaster my office became. It didn't help that hubby was out, #1 son was at a friend's house, and kids #2 & #3 were ignoring the phone. When I finally got through they were starving...but of course no one had the presence of mind to call Mom and say, 'Where are you?" (Or to listen to the message I left on the machine.)

I reheated some coffee this morning and plotted my getaway--I had a coupon for a treat at a local coffee shop--alas, I heard the thump of teenaged feet and had to (partially) admit that I was going to go out. To the dry cleaner and library and farm they really need to know about treats when a half-dozen of their fav bagels are sitting on the counter?

Ugh. A pile of work papers is waiting for me at home. But first, can I buy a new shirt, drop off the used books and the empty egg cartons, talk to Mrs. Yong about the crud on THE BACK (!?) of my son's suitjacket and how she might be able to remove it?

I think I need another Saturday this week. But at least: I wrote today.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I resolve...

So somewhere around August, all my blogging stalled out. Heck, I still have over two weeks of vacation to share--the ship hasn't yet left the dock. And yet I am paralyzed by...well, guilt, maybe? Or perfectionism?

I had ideas, plenty of them, that floated through my head and deserved a post of their own. The mid-term elections. Getting my kid through the college applications process. My thoughts on healthcare versus big business. What "family values" should mean. And does mean in many European countries. The recipe for quick cinnamon-swirl-in-a-pan that I heavily modified from a magazine ad. Living on the east coast. Why the little electric vehicles in Zermatt are so cute (wait, that's vacation again).

But there was always a deep pang when I considered going "off-topic": I've got to finish the vacation blog. I must finish telling about the vacation. Notice how effective that's been in encouraging me to write?

I typically don't make New Year's resolutions because my success rate is pitiful. I always vow to exercise more, lose weight, send greeting cards for the birthdays of family and friends, clean out the closets and the garage. And it doesn't happen. After enough repetitions of this pattern, I had to acknowledge, even accept it was futile.

But this year I experienced a bit of a shift: I volunteered to write a brief article for an online newsletter posted on my employer's public website. I get the assignment at the end of December, having mere days to put something together. I want something timely, with a bit of a research base, of interest to the community, and on a relevant topic (the month prior someone wrote about the dangers of synthetic marijuana. Okay, then). The answer: New Year's resolutions, which a small study from Scranton PA shows can be successful. If done right.

Well, the article had an affect on me (heaven knows if anyone else read it). So I chose two tasks that were simple, concrete, and achievable...and meaningful to me.

#1 was to improve my asthma (I had been hacking since Thanksgiving with a junky cough that wouldn't quit). Not completely accomplished, but major improvements occurred once I saw my new GP, changed meds, and worked on getting more sleep, being better hydrated, and watching my weight. Oh, exercise has gotta be a part of that too, but give this poor woman a chance!

#2 was to write. Blogging would be a good way to do that.

I used to commute by train to my previous job, and I loved the train. I would read, sometimes chat with my co-worker when we left together, and eventually I realized I could write. So I journaled at least one leg of the trip, every day. And I had disciplined myself to blog on other days.

And then I left that job for my current one, which meant replacing the train with a 45 minute drive (or slog, depending on traffic), and replacing blogging/journaling with audiobooks. And now the challenge of trying to find the place and time to blog. And to imbed the discipline of writing back in my life. Writing is part of who I am; I'm not so willing to let it go.

So, finally in month 2 of 2011, I have sat down to write. Can you all serve as my conscience, reminding me to express myself at least once a week? If I can floss daily, I can certainly write once a week. At least. No guilt about undocumented vacations needed.