Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shopping at Trader Joe’s: An Investment of Time

Living in L.A., I can claim a connection to Ground Zero of the Trader Joe’s phenomenon. This is where it all started, and this is certainly where Trader Joe’s started for me.

I remember the first time I walked into a Trader Joe’s. I didn’t grab a cart or even pick up a basket. I was on my way to a dinner party, and I had just dropped in to get a reasonably priced bottle of wine.

The next time I ventured into TJs, I still didn’t need a basket. My two arms sufficed – for the wine and the cheese. (Another social gathering.)

But these experiences occurred before the introduction of the various sub-brands: Trader Giotto’s, Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose’s. These early experiences occurred when Trader Joe’s was just a friendly neighborhood franchise…

Trader Joe’s is still friendly, and I love it for that, but now that I shop there regularly (and I always need a cart), I can also state, quite emphatically, that good ol’ TJs seems to employ the most sadistic parking lot designer ever known to humankind. There are now dozens of the stores in the L.A. area (and hundreds more across the country), and I’ve yet to hear of a Trader Joe’s parking lot that doesn’t challenge the patience of the chain’s dedicated patrons.

Invariably, there is a long wait to find a parking space. Invariably, those circling the lot (entering? trying to leave?) are driving against the arrows (if arrows, in fact, exist). Invariably, the parking lots’ points of entry and exit (often combined) are completely inconvenient (and often downright dangerous) vis-à-vis the major thoroughfare on which that particular store exists.

Shopping at Trader Joe’s (here at Ground Zero, at least) is really a study in commitment. How badly do you want to shop there? What risks are you willing to take? What kind of time do you have to sacrifice?

As a self-employed person, I might be envied by other Trader Joe’s shoppers. After all, I don’t have to wait until after work or weekends to make my Giotto/Ming/Jose purchases. I have the freedom of time! I can go during the day, when – surely – the parking lot is not so full of nuts.

Guess again, nine-to-fivers. I’ve had that alleged freedom for more than a half-dozen years now, and I can’t claim to have cracked the code. The Trader Joe’s parking lot is always sadistic. It was just built that way.

And somehow, even when I don’t enter the parking lot, the time commitment is unavoidable.

Here’s a story, from a few months ago:

It’s midweek, two’ish, and I’ve just hit a good break in billables. I grab my TJs shopping list and head to my car.

Driving through Los Feliz is easy enough – maybe takes four minutes; five minutes, tops – but when I get to Marshall High (famous for the exterior shot introducing Room 222), I’m slowed down considerably. The kids have just been let out, and as they cross in front of my car, I am reminded of a riddle a peer recently shared:

Q: Why are teenagers afraid of zombies?
A: Because zombies can outrun them.

I sit in my car as the teenage zombies amble in front of it. While tedious and absurd, this delay is okay. This delay has nothing, really, to do with Trader Joe’s.

When an opportunity presents itself, I crawl on. And soon, I make the right onto Griffith Park Drive. I’ve now returned to normal afternoon driving speeds. (And I’m still making good time.)

When I get to Hyperion, the light is on my side, and there’s no oncoming traffic. I make the left. (I’m really cruising now.) Then, I see it: the ultimate parking space.

Granted, it’s a metered space, but, honey, it’s worth the price of admission. It’s the last space before that hellish TJs parking lot. And what that means is this: I can back into it easily; no other car can block me in; and when I’m done with my shopping, I can just zip right back into the Hyperion traffic. (I swear, I was able to park more quickly than it took me just now to articulate that rationale!)


So then, after my quick parking maneuvers, I leap out of my car, dash to the meter, and guess what? Thirty-six minutes, pre-paid. (I kid you not.) This is just getting better and better.

I grab a cart that is right there, and I enter the store. I then zoom, unimpeded, down the uncrowded aisles. Pushing the cart that greeted me (and that, remarkably, has evenly constructed wheels and no stubborn desire to make a sudden left turn), I quickly find everything on my list. Not only that, each item is exactly where it should be (i.e., the crew has undertaken no disorienting rearrangement of inventory since my last visit).

I head to check-out, and the options are unprecedented. There is no wait, and that fact is true for at least three cash registers.

I swipe my card without a hitch. Then, with two full bags placed into my smooth-sailing cart, I head out the door and make the quick left to the sidewalk.

I arrive at my car in less than ten seconds, and I open the trunk. I place the bags therein and put the cart back where I found it (flush with the sidewalk newspaper dispenser).

I notice the meter... 27 minutes, still pre-paid. A gift for the next shopper.

I get into the driver’s side and put the key in the ignition. I turn it. What?

I try again.



My car is not making a sound.

I am smiling broadly (and, oh yes, ironically) as I get out of the car and head for the trunk. I am still smiling as I open it and retrieve my groceries. I am even smiling when I approach the raised office area at the front of the store.

“Hi,” I say to the helpful crew member. “My car won’t start, so I was wondering? Could you keep these groceries refrigerated for me until I take care of the problem?”

Of course he can. After all, he works for Trader Joe’s. So he’s a friendly, happy guy.

Long story short: forty-five minutes later, I am back at Trader Joe’s. A new battery in my car, I negotiate the sadistic parking lot. Finally, I get a space, and I run in to retrieve my groceries. Fifteen minutes after that, I’m back home. Another chunk of my life has passed by; another chunk of my life dedicated to shopping at Trader Joe’s.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Grand Central Christmas

My verbal skills include the ability to take an acerbic path. That's not necessarily a gift. It just is. And it is, among other things, potentially misleading. Contradicting that caustic edge is another part of me -- the part that is moved to tears by a profound sense of what I can only describe as universality.

That connection.

That feeling.

That “brotherhood of man” thing.

Although I claim no religious affiliations, Christmas carols have always pushed that special button for me. I don’t care if it’s about some little town named Bethlehem, a drummer boy catching Mary’s eye, or whatever it was that came upon a midnight clear… if you put me in a room where a bunch of people are singing those songs, I guarantee you, I’ll start crying.

(I might even embarrass you.)

Back in my New York years, I worked for a time at the Ford Foundation, and so my commute to and from the office involved walking through Grand Central Station. One December evening, I was in the main concourse area when I heard some familiar songs, and so I was drawn to a circle of people. Among them was a man in his late twenties (I’m guessing), dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. His guitar was strapped on, and his enthusiasm in leading the group of carolers was charmingly genuine. As for the group, it appeared to have a core: young people. Specifically, teens.

I’ll never know the actual story behind the gathering, but I made one up on the spot, and I’m sticking to it. Here’s what I think was happening at Grand Central that evening: teacher man, who had grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, had an altruistic heart (quite different from his peers, who were – at the time – all wearing yellow ties and working on Wall Street). He successfully recruited about a dozen of the ninth graders from his Connecticut classroom, and together, they rode the train into Manhattan earlier that afternoon. Then, just in time for the rush-hour madness, they formed their circle. For anyone who joined the circle, they had prepared – and happily distributed – sheets of lyrics.

They were armed and ready – to promote joy to the world in Grand Central Station.

When I first approached the circle, it was simply out of curiosity. Once I realized I could do some caroling on my way home from work, I was more than happy to join in. I accepted a copy of the stapled collection of lyrics (though I didn’t need them for the most part), and I participated with enthusiasm.

But as we were into the second verse of Angels We Have Heard On High, I realized I had to make an adjustment. I had to hold the stapled lyrics a little higher. I had to hide my face. I was hard-pressed, at that point, to hold back the tears, and while I’m not ashamed to cry at anything, I didn’t want to disturb someone else’s good time…

I should note, though, that part of what compelled that maneuver was the observations I already had made. Before allowing that lyric sheet to hide my emotion, I had looked around. I had taken in the faces and bodies who had joined this circle of impromptu carolers. There were homeless women (at the time, we called them “bag ladies”); there were businessmen and women executives; there were local service workers and tourists just passing through. There was teacher man and his students.

There was, from what I could tell, everyone.

Everyone – singing together in a circle.

Everyone – creating a sound of joy.

The beauty of the noise emanating from Grand Central’s main concourse was so powerful. The familiarity there was so universal.

In that moment, all else seemed secondary or obsolete.

I hid behind the lyric sheet.

I sang and I cried.

And when I’d had my fill, I left the circle and caught the shuttle to Times Square.

From there, I transferred to the Broadway Local and headed home.

Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Subtext of Texting

I’ve said I’m not gonna do it, and I really hope I stick with that plan.

Of course, I said I’d never buy a cell phone. I said it for years. Now, I have one. (I still prefer my landline, though. I like the way the phone feels. And I’m not fooled for a second by the concept of “free minutes.” If they were free, I wouldn’t get a $40-plus bill every month, right?)

I also resisted the blogging thing. Yet – here I am, doing what I know I have to do as a writer. …Looking for an audience. …Hoping that some agent will drop by and want to know more.

Texting, though? Not sure I’ll get into that… I like my thumbs too much. After all, isn’t it our thumbs – and what we can do with them – that set us apart and put us further up the evolutionary chain? It worries me that the generations younger than I might work their thumbs so hard that they fall off…

When I was in Virginia recently, I caught the local eleven o’clock news one night. They showed footage of a community parade and a particular school’s banner within that parade. If you close your eyes and imagine that picture, you might envision the scene: Ten students have been selected to represent their school. As a team, they proudly carry the banner, contributing equally to its even, horizontal display – holding it, in unison, somewhere between their chests and their ankles.

Not so in the footage I saw. In the footage I saw, only the kids at either end had hands on the banner. The group in between were all texting. No faces could be seen. Just the tops of heads. Looking down.

As tempted as I am to curse technology, I can’t do that. In many ways, I am extremely grateful for it. As a person who earns money by helping nonprofit organizations find funders, I am so happy to have advanced from the days of large foundation directories. When I think of the hours I used to spend sifting through those tomes – the pages as thin as onion skin, the typeface easily a six-point font... Now, when I need to find a funder’s guidelines, I just go to their website. And when I need to learn about funders I might not otherwise know, I can use software. The Internet is my friend in these moments.

Likewise, as a writer researching agents’ interests, perusing their websites is so much more helpful than reading the profile in a published directory. The websites are current, colorful, and complete. The information is firsthand.

As for querying those agents, I am grateful that I can use email. Back in the old days, I would have sent slews of queries out by “snail mail,” and for each I sent, I would have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope. That’s a lot of paper, a lot of postage, and in the end… a bit of money.

So, yes, technology has its merits. No doubt about it. But… every time some new trend emerges, I ask myself the same question: why can’t we evolve as remarkably as the machines we create?

As I go about my day and see so many people texting, I fear for all the thumbs that might soon fall off. And I wonder: with so many heads cast down… will anybody notice?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Excerpts from my Self-Employment Manual

Work Hours and Leave Policies:

Overview: Here at Katie Dot Com, we know that individuals are not born to produce on some kind of set schedule. Nine o’clock is as arbitrary a time as five o’clock, and why shouldn’t A.M. and P.M. be interchangeable? Who cares, really?

Sick Leave: Not feeling well? Then, for God’s sake, stay in bed! You’re a Katie Dot Com employee, so we trust you! We know that you’ll get the job done. Don’t feel that you have to show up simply because it’s a Monday or a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday or a Friday. Just get better! Take care of yourself!

Vacations: Okay, chances are, as a Katie Dot Com employee, you don’t have a whole lot of money to throw around on cruises and stuff like that. But: if you need to get out of town for a while, just make your plans, put out the word, give everybody the big head’s up, and be on your way. Rest assured, the work will still be there when you get back.

Personal Days: Come on, people! Isn’t every day a personal day?

Dress Code:

Here at Katie Dot Com, we pride ourselves in recognizing that individuals have their own style. We also believe that people are most productive when they are comfortable. Accordingly, we do not dare to impose policies regarding dress. We also believe that when an employee of Katie Dot Com arrives at her workstation, her primary concern should be coffee. Therefore, if the clothes the employee is wearing allow her to make coffee, then – in our opinion – she is pretty much dressed for work.

As to secondary concerns, the work here at Katie Dot Com has everything to do with deadlines. Accordingly, if, during the course of meeting a deadline, an employee of Katie Dot Com needs to change her clothes, that is perfectly reasonable (and also encouraged).

Of course, even a business that exists in the corner of a kitchen needs to mix things up at times. Accordingly, Katie Dot Com recommends Not-So-Casual Fridays. While this is not a deal-breaker, and no employee will ever be fired for refusing to play a part in this concept, the wearing of underwear is encouraged on Fridays. It’s just our way of reminding us that the weekend is approaching…

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bully Pulpit

When I hear or see the phrase, “the bully pulpit,” the wordsmith in me cannot help but do a word scramble. And the result of that is pitbull.

(But I don't also think of lipstick, a la Mizz Palin.)

The country I call home – the “good ol’ USA” – seems always to have had the best possible billing on the world’s bully pulpit, and while I question our authority and stellar positioning, I must confess that I am grateful for the passage of time…

It wasn’t even two years ago, I guess, when the news was all about water-boarding. I was listening to NPR one day, and the story included a sound byte from our then-President. I can’t claim to quote him verbatim, but his comment went something like this: “In our country,” our then-President said, “we do not torture people.”

I leapt from the couch.

I ran toward my stereo.

I spoke into the base of the sound system that was providing radio frequency.


Because he was (simply by speaking). Because he did (simply by assuming such an important role). Because he could…

Every time that entitled son-of-a-bitch opened his mouth, I felt tortured.

Not so with Obama.

I appreciate the fact that the man thinks. I appreciate that he cares and is willing to take the time to explain. I appreciate that he has more “on his plate” than any predecessor in the Oval Office.

But, no matter my opinion of the person standing at the world’s premier bully pulpit, I remain confused. I will probably never understand international politics and the thought processes that allow it to unfold as it does. I will probably never understand why “we” think that sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will get the job done.

And what is “the job,” anyway? It’s about al Qaeda, right? And the Taliban? I don’t know, but unless I’ve missed something, that group doesn’t exactly exist in ground-war circuits. That group is about belief systems. They are about psychology. And that’s a totally different kind of war.

According to what I know of the 9-11 attacks, these people want to die. The process takes them that much closer to their purpose.

So, have we asked our troops about their philosophies? Do they want to die? And if they do, do they know what they’re dying for?

It’s a shame that our country became so powerful so quickly. At first blush, we were the spoiled teenager. You know the one – who, on the same day, gets both a driver’s license and a brand new car. We’ve been speeding about quite cleverly since then, amassing riches (and more recently, debt). It seems, though, that we’ve yet to stand back and take stock of our own worthiness.

Our own worthiness… a broken public education system, marked by increasing illiteracy; hunger and homelessness on the rise; growing rates of unemployment; home foreclosures left and right; millions without affordable healthcare coverage; collectively dismal credit ratings reflecting lives outspent…

Who are we to show some other country how to behave? And, if Bin Laden and his band of merry men are really what we’re looking for, does it have to take 30,000 troops to bring them to their knees?

America – once the unrestricted adolescent – is now closer to thirtysomething.

Sure, we might have traded in that first car (a few times), and we may now be driving a hybrid, but… do we know where we're going?

On-star, are you with us?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Gratitude

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I know I have much to be grateful for. Minor difficulties crop up constantly, but that’s to be expected. I try not to dwell on the small hurdles. And while I also try not to give too much weight to those moments that seem magical, there they are nevertheless. They consistently tell me that I’m doing the right thing – that if I can give thanks for nothing else, I can appreciate the path I’ve walked and the road ahead.

The essay that follows fell onto my keyboard in March of 2002. Which is to say, this piece of writing is older than the keyboard I am currently using. But it remains one of my favorite tales of faith and of fate. I share it now in the spirit of Thanksgiving…

Life’s Magic

The other night, I was in one of those moods. So I opened the hall closet, and I scanned the possibilities: a stack of journals dating back to 1972; scripts from sit-coms, plays, and movies; starts of novels; short stories and essays; loose-leaf journal entries; just plain chrons…

I decided to pull down from the shelf a small, unlabeled box. I didn’t know what was in it, but I knew I’d find a treasure or two. Once I opened it, I saw the little composition books that I filled when I was probably 26 and 27.

At the time, I was reading voraciously. And although I didn’t realize it then, the authors I had been drawn to – Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, Richard Adams – wrote from a metaphysical perspective.

I was so moved by what they wrote that I always had a pen handy when I was reading. I would use the pen to star paragraphs, to draw lines in the margin, to provide some reminder to myself: Return Here.

After reading the first two or three of these novels, I decided to take it a step further. And so, in little composition books, I began recording the lines and paragraphs that were particularly resonant. It was a relaxing, meditative task, sitting there on my couch/perch, holding the fountain pen that had become my lucky charm. I think, too, that I thought the task would serve me ultimately. I believed that if these writers’ magical words traveled through my magical pen, I would elevate my ability to write. I would absorb not only their wisdom, but also their eloquence.


And so the other night, I came upon the little composition books. I opened one, and I began to read. This particular book began with passages I had copied from Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi.

Even after reading most of the passages – and I must have copied 50 or so of them – I couldn’t completely recall the book. I did remember that it was obtuse; certainly heavier than Richard Adams, and not nearly as prurient as Henry Miller. And I kind of got a recollective sense of the plot – a boy goes to an other-world prep school, where he learns wisdom, where he learns the meaning of life and what matters.

As I read the passages that I had rewritten in my own pen, I came across a reference to the Glass Bead Game, but that first appearance didn’t strike me. I simply remembered that such was the name of the game that was played – and mastered – by disciples of the Magister Ludi school.

I kept reading.

As I continued and nearly reached the end of this group of entries, the phrase appeared again, this time as the title of a poem: “The Glass Bead Game.”

This time, it stood out.

GLASS BEADS. God, I know what they are! Glass beads. They had entered my life a few years back. They became part of my life – toward what end, I could not know.

With unexpected intrigue, I read “The Glass Bead Game” – the Hesse poem that I had recorded nearly 20 years before:

“We re-enact with reverent attention
The universal chord, the master’s harmony,
Evoking in unsullied communion
Minds and times of highest sanctity.

We draw upon the iconography
Whose mystery is able to contain
The boundlessness, the storm of all existence
Give chaos form, and hold our lives in rein.

The pattern sings like crystal constellations,
And when we tell our beads, we serve the whole,
And cannot be dislodged or misdirected,
Held in the orbit of the Cosmic Soul.”


I could not have known, when I held my magical pen and recorded those magical words, that nearly two decades later, I would play my own glass bead game. I could not have known then how profound Hesse was.

When I first embarked on what I have come to call “the unbearable lightness of beading,” I knew full well that it was meditative. I knew it was settling. And I knew, even though my bank account would dispute it, that it was moving me forward. I couldn’t prove it with facts; I could only feel it in my soul.

And now, I am realizing it. The beads were not about making jewelry or launching a website or becoming some sort of designer. The beads were about getting back to me and my destiny. The beads were about welcoming my right brain back into the world that is my Self; allowing the artist in me to have her space.

The right brain is back now, and she is not fighting with the left. There is balance between the two. Balance that allows me to do what I do well – for myself and for others. Balance that allows me to absorb the magic of life and the blessings I have been given. Balance that allows me to learn constantly and to recognize those moments and those people that make the learning happen.

The glass bead game… at the moment, I feel that I’ve won.

But, I am a process person.

And so I know, this game ain’t over yet.


Postscript: for an abridged look at my experience with the “unbearable lightness of beading,” please visit my website at

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Laughing at OCD

I appreciate that, for some people, obsessive compulsive disorder is no laughing matter. In one manifestation of OCD, an afflicted individual must constantly stop his car, get out of it, and check to make sure he didn’t just run over some formerly living thing. In another, the disordered person is compelled to wash her hands so frequently that the skin becomes raw and is rid of its capacity to stave off bad bacteria.

I feel for these people. I really do. A brain disorder can disrupt personal freedom in a big way. It can become the monster in the room that breaks deals and thwarts growth.

My manifestation of OCD, however, is downright comical, and my former husband (whom we’ll call Ben) knew how to make us both laugh at it. Once, when we were shopping at Ralphs together, I tossed a box of tampons in our cart. “Did you check the date?” he asked, with deadpan delivery.

An hour or so later, after we had returned home and put away the groceries, I went into the living room. Ben stayed behind in the kitchen to make a sandwich. We had just bought peanut butter, jelly, and bread, so how could he resist?

After a few minutes, Ben entered the living room. He was carrying the jar of peanut butter and wearing an expressionless face. He approached the couch, where I was sitting. And as he slowly opened the jar, he asked, with feigned concern, “Do you think this is okay?”

He then held out the opened jar. Written into the smooth top of the fresh peanut butter was the word, “DIE.”

Quite a card, that ex-husband o’ mine. With the tine of a fork, he could make me laugh at myself.

These days, I share OCD laughs with my neighbor and friend, Neil*. We are afflicted by similar manifestations of the disorder. Which is to say, we both tend to check things multiple times (particularly things that might catch on fire). And we share the concern that otherwise edible foods and beverages might be tainted.

One afternoon a few years ago, I was returning home, and Neil heard me approach the courtyard we share. Before I’d had a chance to head upstairs to my apartment, he flung open his door across the way. He had that deer-in-headlights look – clearly upset about something.

He then explained that his cat had just walked across his desk, and when she did so, her tail brushed against his teeth. He wondered if…

Neil didn’t need to explain. Adapting a comforting tone, I said, “I’ve got some Listerine upstairs. Do you wanna come up and have a quick gargle?”

He thought that was a good idea, and so we headed up my stairs together.

Once we were in the kitchen, I pulled a small glass out of the cabinet and filled it with about a quarter-inch of Listerine. I handed it to him. Then, like two athletes in some relay event, we crossed paths. He headed to the sink as I went in the other direction.

But my eyes widened in a big way when he reached for the cold-water knob and began, “I’ll just dilute—”

“Not THAT water!” I screamed, interrupting him.

With no further ado, we both doubled over laughing.

Neil’s concern for what his cat’s tail might have left on his teeth was trumped in that moment by my fear of unfiltered L.A. water.

Crazy advises crazy. Nuts is there to provide solace to nuts. Our fears are absurd, and we both know it. But they’re our fears. Our often humorous fears. We own them, and we’re there for each other.

We’re there to laugh together at the people we just can’t help but be.


*not his real name

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Lee Marvin Story

Imagine a world where you can’t rent movies or look up some info online.

In 1979, that was the world I was living in. And that’s where my tale begins…

It was early December in NYC. Which means it was that crisp, holiday time, and everyone was in a festive mood. My good friend, John, had some out-of-town guests, and because I was living in a rather spacious apartment, we volunteered my living room for the three guys’ crash pad.

After a day-and-a-half of running around town, we spent Sunday evening in. Just hanging around the living room, talking about whatever. The conversation turned to favorite movies, and John’s brother, Tom, mentioned that his was Cat Ballou. As we began to riff on the movie, we remembered that Lee Marvin played two roles: the drunk (Kid Shelleen), and… what was the name of the other character? He had a silver nose, and he was a bad guy! What was his name?

We couldn’t think of it, and so we moved on. But, for John and me, moving on was only temporary. For months after the three houseguests returned to Michigan, John and I continued to obsess over the unanswered trivia question. We’d quiz people at parties we’d attend. And, week after week, I’d peruse the TV listings in the paper to see if Cat Ballou might be that night’s late, late movie on network television.

I’d also check the movie listings in the Times and The New Yorker. There were lots of revival theatres back then, and it would have been fun to see the old western on the big screen. But… it never showed up.

Why were we so obsessed with getting the answer to this question?

Time passed… and the following July, I had tickets to see a production of Camelot at Lincoln Center. Richard Burton reprising his role, and Christine Ebersol playing Guenevere. I met my friend, Audrey, at the box office, where we picked up our tickets. Then, we entered the large lobby. We had a little time to mill about before heading up to our cheap seats, and as we both took in the array of people, I noticed a large man, about ten feet away.

“Look!” I said to Audrey. “Lee Marvin!”

Then, it dawned on me: He’ll know!

Without thinking twice about it, I raced over to him. And then, in a truly childlike move, I tugged ever so gently on the sleeve of his camel-colored jacket. “Mr. Marvin?” I said, my voice easily three octaves higher than it usually is. “Mr. Marvin?”

He looked down at me (not in a classist way; rather, in the way of someone who is just that much taller).

“Yes?” he said, his voice large, the word seeming to have so many more than three letters.

I was stunned, and I must have looked incredibly frightened.

“Yes?” he reiterated, his presence so far above me that his words echoed as God’s might.

(I was temporarily frozen by the reality of the moment: Lee Marvin was waiting for me to say something!)

“Um, yes, Mr. Marvin,” I began, sounding like a chipmunk on amphetamines, “Um, anyway, these friends of mine and I have been obsessed for a while with a trivia question, and…”

“Yes?” he asked again, still looking down upon me (not unkindly) and filling the time while I took a breath.

“And so we’re just wondering, Mr. Marvin, in Cat Ballou, what’s the name of that guy you played – not Kid Shelleen, we know about him, but the other guy… the guy with the silver nose?”

“Tim Strawn,” he said.

“Tim Strawn?” I repeated, my voice still sounding like I’d just inhaled a boatload of helium.

“Tim Strawn,” he confirmed, maintaining his solid standing and deep vocal register.

“Thank you,” I squeaked.

And as I scurried away, all I could think was, “I can’t wait to tell John!”

I got the answer! I got it from the man himself!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Are You Waiting For? (Some Thoughts on Life Expectancy)

Last Spring, I participated in a few sessions of a women’s networking group. I was looking for ways to promote my novel, The Somebody Who, and I thought these monthly gatherings might be helpful. At the third of the three consecutive meetings I attended, I grabbed a chair that was next to a woman who was new to the group (or, at least, new to me). She was raving about something she had heard that day. She was excited because she had learned that some authority somewhere had suggested that life expectancy could be 140.

When I rolled my eyes, I must have done so audibly. When she turned to me, I apologized. “Sorry,” I said, holding up my novel. “But I’m here promoting a story about dementia. I just can’t get excited about that news.”

But she was. She really was excited by the prospect of living to be 140. And I just don’t get that.

You want to live to be 140? What? You want to take up space and resources that other, younger people need? Are you kidding? How do you envision all those extra years? You think you’re gonna have some good times? You think that, as you near the end, you’re gonna still have it together? Hell, I could be wrong; maybe you will live to be 140. Maybe, in fact, you’ll be in such good shape that you'll be able to comfort that daughter of yours. You know the one I’m talking about … think ahead: your little girl is 115, and she’s going through a rough time. But the two of you are close (who wouldn’t be after more than a century of bonding?), and so she’ll appreciate your words of motherly wisdom. She’ll appreciate your telling her, “Hang in there, honey. And don’t worry. It’ll all get better soon. The 120’s? Those are the best!

… A part of me feels that if you don’t do the first 70 right, you don’t get another 70. You just don’t. (And, if you do do the first 70 right, you don’t need another 70. Follow me?)

I know I’m weirdly cavalier about the whole lifespan thing. I remember, three or four years ago, when I was getting ready to go back to Virginia to see my folks, a friend here in L.A. said, “Remember, Katie, this might be the last time you see your Dad.”

“That’s true for all of us,” I replied. “Every time we see each other. That might be the last time.”

Case in point:

In early March of '08 (a few weeks before my Dad died), I was running an errand in the Valley. I parked my car on Ventura Boulevard, and when I went to the meter, I realized I didn’t have enough change in my wallet. I had to head back to the driver’s side of my Corolla so I could get some quarters out of the compartment just left of the steering wheel. I took a broad step off the sidewalk, and when I took the next broad step, a piece of raised pavement threw me off in a big way. I tripped, but I didn’t fall. And after I didn’t fall, I took notice of the SUV that would have flattened my head if I had fallen.

Standing there, tripped but not fallen (still alive), only one thought crossed my mind: “That’s what I’m talking about, people! That’s what I’m talking about.”

Don’t wait for your 120’s for everything to fall into place. There are too many SUVs out there.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk

On a Saturday evening, back in the summer of ’02, I took a quick trip to the corner market with my friend and neighbor, Julie. The hot August day had cooled off, and the stoop in the courtyard was beckoning. To accompany the stoop, Julie and I had picked up some beer, and with our six in tow, we began to head back up the block.

This little part of Los Angeles is on the cusp of everything: Los Feliz, Hollywood, Thai Town, Little Armenia. Separating the corner market from the stoop are ten or so buildings that run the gamut. There's the large rental property that (at the time) had been abandoned since the Northridge earthquake. There's a beautiful, new complex that was built by a housing development corporation for low-income families. And there's a halfway house, which (at the time) was allowing a lot of rabbit copulation. (It seemed that every two months or so, a new generation of bunnies was hopping around the front yard.) Describing my block (even today) is difficult. Eclectic is too limiting a word, really.

There's also the sidewalk itself and the not-so-straight route it takes up the street. Tree roots have buckled the cement in several places – creating rises, angles, and tripping points. At a certain spot, about three or four buildings up from Hollywood Boulevard, the sidewalk takes a distinct jog to the left, and a rather large plant leans toward the street. The jog therefore creates a pedestrian’s blind spot.

That summer night in '02, Julie and I were at that blind spot, and so we were both surprised when we found ourselves face-to-face with a neighbor-friend. “Nick!*” Julie said, enthusiastically, when we saw him.

(I didn’t say anything, but something in my head spoke. Something in my head said, “Maybe it’s time for Nick.”)

He was on his way to the market, also in search of beer, and he invited us over to watch a movie he had rented, as well as a home movie he had shot with his teenage daughters earlier that day. We agreed to the plan, and once he had returned from his errand, we went over to his place – a small, cluttered, studio apartment in the building just north of ours.

We watched the first movie, which was feature length, and then we watched the home movie. Then, when Julie made indications that she would be heading back to her place, I decided to stay. What ensued was awkward (in my memory and in my opinion), but it was something Nick and I had to get out of the way. It also was worth it to experience that initial clumsiness. Because for the three years that followed, he and I enjoyed one of the best intimate relationships I have had in my life.

Had our relationship not unfolded, I might not have remembered hearing what I heard. I might not have remembered the "voice" that said, “Maybe it’s time for Nick.” I might not have come to view that particular location as The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. But: I did hear that message. I heard it loud and clear. Its power fueled me with the audacity to remain in Nick's apartment after Julie headed home.

Was there something pre-destined about what happened that night? Nick had been a neighbor for several years. I always had felt an attraction to him. Until that night, though – until it was “time” for him – I didn’t know what to do about the attraction. Apparently, that night, I did the right thing. Anyway, it all worked out for as long as it could.

Fast Forward, April 2009: Having just returned from a week in Virginia, where I visited family and did a speaking gig regarding my first novel, I’m returning from a trip to the corner market. It’s Monday or Tuesday. I am passing the Intuitive Jog when I notice a beautiful cat crossing my path, heading from the street toward grass and shrubbery. I look to my right, and I see a few adults standing beside a double-parked car. Something in my head says: “Those people just dumped that cat.”

I turn from noticing them, and I gaze at the cat, who is looking at me. “You’re beautiful!” I say to the beast, admiring its tabby markings and large, engaging eyes. “You are so beautiful!”

A part of me wants to pick this cat up immediately and take it home, and I know that’s an odd reaction for me. I see beautiful cats all the time, but that doesn’t mean I want to bring them home. Besides, I have two beautiful cats at home.

I keep walking, and after I enter my apartment and greet the pre-existing feline conditions that grace my one-bedroom, the brief encounter is forgotten...

Thursday of that same week, I have to run a quick mid-day errand. I have to meet a client nearby and pick up some documents. We are both pressed for time, and because we are meeting in a rather low-income neighborhood (he has just done a workshop with an elementary school class), our rendezvous has all the markings of a shady deal. He barely slows his car, hands me the envelope and drives on. I then return to my car and drive back to my apartment, where I’ve got about ninety minutes to kill before I need to head out the door for my weekly gig in West Hollywood.

I climb the stairs to my apartment door, put the key in the lock, and look down. There’s a cat – a beautiful tabby cat – with its eyes wide and its arms stretched up, leaning against my door. He is indicating that he would like to come in.

I know cats. I’ve known them all my life. And one of the things I like about them is that they don’t do this sort of thing. They don’t implore. They don’t ask. They just expect. (And, generally, their expectations are met.) But this cat is asking for something (rather imploringly). It is asking to be allowed into my home.

I stop. I look at the cat. And then I say, “Hold on a minute. Don’t go away.”

I enter my apartment and shut the door on the big-eyed tabby. I scoop up girl-cat Vesta, who is napping in the living room. I put her in the bedroom, where boy-cat Griffin is already lounging on the bed. I then bring food dishes and one of the litter boxes into the room. “See you guys, later,” I say, as I pull my bedroom door shut.

I then return to the front door and open it. The big-eyed tabby cat is still there.

“Come on in,” I say.

The cat makes his entrance.

“So here’s the deal,” I tell him then. “I gotta leave in just over an hour. I’m going to keep the front door opened until then, and if you want to move on, you can. But: if you’re still here when I have to go, then this is where you’re going to be for this afternoon and evening.”

...The cat was still in my apartment when I left for my West Hollywood gig. The cat is still in my apartment today. I named him Lotto, and he’s my buddy.

The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. Strange. Was that Lotto I saw that night? And was I correct in assuming that the people standing by that car had “dumped” him? Could be. If they paid more than $6.00 for their shower curtain, they probably weren’t pleased with what he can do to that particular part of bathroom décor. If their home was absent of people throughout the day, I don’t even want to think about what they returned to in the evening. Lotto needs a person to hang around. Lotto needs a person to taunt. Lotto needs, every now and then, to be told (kindly and lovingly), “Stop it, you brat!”

And maybe I needed a brat. (Vesta and Griffin are both 13.)

Here’s the other weird thing: before I left for my April trip to Virginia, I had begun a new novel. It takes place in my neighborhood and features a protagonist named Martin. In the first chapter, a tabby cat climbs in through Martin’s bedroom window (which is on a fire escape). Eventually, Martin accepts that he has been adopted, and he names the cat Dude. The part I can’t remember, though, is this: does Dude like tummy rubs because Lotto does or… vice versa? I can no longer recall the chronology.

I am sure, though, about the order of some other events. About 10 days into Lotto’s and my cohabitation, I was sitting at my work corner, reading the novel pages I had written the night before. “Something needs to happen,” I thought.

In response to this narrative need, I decided that, while Martin was on a business trip, I would have Dude fall out of Martin’s fifth-floor window. (When I lived in New York, my cat, Mort, fell out of my fourth-floor window, so I knew the drill.) I made a few notes on that score, and I put away my novel pages for the night.

The next morning, after I got up, I counted cats. Vesta: check. Griffin: check. Where’s Lotto? I looked everywhere, and then I applied some deductive reasoning. From observing his habits and interests, I had ascertained that (at the time) he liked to retreat occasionally behind the floor-length bedroom curtains. So I walked to the far side of the bedroom and pulled back the curtains. That’s when I noticed the window screen on the ground below.

Racing downstairs, I berated myself for coming up with that “fall out of the window” idea. Why did I think of that? Damnit! I walked around the building. I called his name (though, it’s a name I had only given him about three or four days before; how was he to know?)

No sign of the cat.

I came upstairs and felt despondent. I called my neighbor Debbi. “I thought he was happy here!” I told her voicemail. “Damn!”

I had brought the window screen back upstairs with me, and when I noticed that it wasn’t bent, I got more concerned. I wondered if maybe he had leaned into it, and that’s when the fall occurred. I knew, from a New York friend’s experience with a cat who had fallen a short distance, that sometimes short distances are more dangerous. With short falls, cats have less opportunity to make the aerodynamic corrections that allow them to land on their feet.

I went back outside.

This time, I looked more carefully under every shrub in the area. I checked to make sure none of the grates leading to the building’s bowels were accessible. I knew that if he were hurt, he would have crawled somewhere. He would have crawled somewhere possibly far from my grasp.

I was relieved to see that there was no way he could get underneath the building. Still, though, no sign of the cat.

I returned to my apartment, and as I prepared my first coffee of the day, I felt sad. At a loss, really. I mean, what would the sign say: “Found Cat Lost”? He wasn’t even mine. (Are cats ever “mine?” Or “yours?”)

I sighed and shrugged and thought, “Well, that was nice for a minute. Oh well.”

My coffee was ready, but I wasn’t. Not ready to give up, anyway. So I thought, “I’ll just go down to the stoop and drink it there. Maybe something will happen.”

I opened the door to my apartment, stepped out onto the small landing at the top of the stairs and looked down. Just then, coming around the corner, was that face. Beautiful tabby markings. Big eyes. Looking up in my direction.

“Get up here!” I said, with a certain degree of playful authority.

And he did.

He hasn’t left since.

I’ve begun some good relationships at The Intuitive Jog in the Sidewalk. With any luck, this one will last for more than three years…


*not his real name

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Short Letter to the Moon

Dear Moon,

I heard the news last week on NPR. Curious to learn something about the existence of water within your sphere, NASA decided to hurl a rocket at you. I am so sorry. Please know that this was not my idea, and I would never, ever approve of such a thing.

I should probably tell you that science has never been a strong suit for me. I’d attribute that status to disinterest, but that’s not accurate really. Actually, what I feel for science is awe -- inexplicable, I-can’t-even-deal-with-it awe. I mean… is it just me, or isn’t it kind of amazing that we’re all living on this big round thing that’s spinning so fast we don’t fall off?

Anyway, Moon, I think it’s really wrong that NASA hurled that rocket at you. Sure, I know, meteors are slamming you a couple times a month (or so I heard on NPR), so what’s another blemish on your already cratered landscape?

For me, the problem is that it’s a man-made blemish. For me, NASA’s decision to hurl a rocket at you was tremendously disrespectful. So, if you start messing with the tides, I’ll totally get it.

Anyway, I’m sorry. (And, by the way, if you have water, hang onto it. We people on Earth are totally disrespectful of that, too.)

Your friend always,

Katie Gates

Friday, October 9, 2009

Let's Talk About Cilantro

For years, I was paranoid. Extremely paranoid.

I’d take a bite of the gourmet concoction that was a feature of the Ford Foundation’s employee salad bar, and that would be the end of that course. (I actually would become frightened by what I had just tasted.)

I’d dip a tortilla chip into some guacamole (after my then-husband and I had moved to California), and I’d think, “okay, I really, seriously don’t like avocado.”

I’d spit a full forkful of an Indian dish into a napkin, knowing there was no way it could go further in the other direction…

And then one day, in the early ‘90’s, at the first of several L.A. nonprofits that would welcome me to their staff, I walked into the employees’ kitchen …

Joie was in there, chopping a large bushel of something green. I took a whiff, and I immediately exclaimed, “That’s what I hate! What is that?”

“Cilantro,” she replied.

What a relief to know that this green thing had a name and that it actually was a “food product” that people really liked. For years, I was convinced that some weird underground of disconnected evil types was just hell-bent on poisoning me!

Taste is a strange thing (and I’m talking only about food at the moment). Regarding cilantro, I was relieved to learn – through a dialogue I recently heard on public radio – that there’s actually a gene that makes one extremely adverse to the herb.

It’s good to have that excuse.

Regarding my other food aversions, I can’t really claim some genetic predisposition.

I recently participated in a wonderful meal event that was inspired by the movie, Julie & Julia. My friend, Maria, found a bunch of Julia Child recipes, gave us all shopping lists, and invited us over to begin the cooking at 3:00 in the afternoon. It was better than Thanksgiving. It was awesome. Those of us who contributed to the prep (i.e., the women) made things we had never made before. (We became chefs!)

I also appreciated that, during the planning, Maria had conveyed to others my aversion to mushrooms.

Her comment, apparently, had stayed in some memories. At a certain point, during the hours of prep, one of the Julie/Julia’s was slicing vegetables.

“Katie,” she asked, “do you do mushrooms?”

“Oh my,” I laughed. “Not in thirty years!”

(One of the husbands, who was washing some of the meal-prep dishes, chuckled then.)

I closed the fridge and explained myself. “It’s not an allergy,” I said. “It’s just… I don’t know. It’s like, one time, in the restaurant where I used to work – in midtown Manhattan – a tourist couple was in one of my booths. From Europe, probably. Anyway, they weren’t fluent in English. So when the man pointed to the menu – to the listing for Spinach and Mushroom Quiche – and he asked, ‘Vat eez mushroom?’, I swear for the life of me, all I could think was, It’s a fungus that grows in cowshit.”




Hands down, given the choice, I’d rather have that fungus that grows in cowshit than that poison they call cilantro!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Groucho, Gandhi, and Me: an October 2nd Story

I’m not a group person. Or, more accurately, I’m not terribly motivated within a group setting. (The virtually badgeless girl scout sash I sported in the fourth grade exists as proof.) So when my friend, Diane, asked if I would be interested in joining a theatre group, I didn’t jump at the opportunity.

It was the mid-80’s. It was New York. Diane, whom I had known since our prep school days in Virginia, was pursuing an acting career, and she was in the theatre group for that very reason. Comprising actors, actresses, directors, and writers, the collective was dedicated to staging original work. And they were always looking for writers. Diane hoped I’d bring my pen to the table.

I suppose there was a lull in the telephone dialogue (while I was trying to motivate myself to become something that I’m not). Diane jumped into that lull. “Katie,” she said, “all the men are straight.”

“When’s the next meeting?” I replied.

The thing is, I have always been attracted to right-brain men, and in New York, the idea of a theatre group filled with straight men was something I just couldn’t resist. So what if I wasn’t a “group person?” I was in my late 20’s, and finding a man was at the top of my agenda.

It took only a few weekly workshops (and the ever-popular post-workshop pitchers of beers) for me to befriend a fellow writer. Like me, Josh* was doing everything he could to get published or produced. We bonded over the struggle. We also were attracted to one another. And so one night, we left the post-workshop soiree together, and we rode the subway up to my apartment on 110th Street.

Shortly after we entered my large room, I filled in the awkward sense of what’s next? by picking up an item that had been in my Christmas stocking just two months earlier. It was one of those little desktop calendars that used to be popular: 4” by 4”; tear off the day and move on. This particular calendar was dedicated to Libras, and so each page featured that day’s horoscope. Each of the pages also included a list of three famous people born on that day. (So, in a sense, it was not an exclusively Libran accessory.)

Given that Josh and I were both writers, I was using words-on-paper to make the first move. (We needed to get the foreplay going, after all.) I flipped the pages of the calendar so as to reveal the three people born on my day (October 2nd). With pride, I showed him my list: Groucho Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and… okay, Rex Reed. (The third name would be different today, no doubt. Kelly Ripa? Sting?)

Josh was clearly impressed, and he also felt challenged. When he held out his hand, I knew he wanted me to pass over the calendar. I did so, and he quickly found his birthday (May 10th). Together, we looked at the list. Silence. Who are these people? Truly, the list might as well have said John Doe, John Doe, and John Doe. (Had Rex Reed been born on May 10th, he would have held the number one spot.)

Josh – my fellow writer; my comrade in the struggle to be published or produced – was clearly disappointed. But he had the presence of mind to buy a little time...

He looked at his list in consternation...

He flipped back to October 2nd and looked again at my list...

He nodded (again) to convey respect...

He then returned to his list.

Then, he looked at me. “You’re gonna have to work a lot harder than I am,” he said.

*not his real name; he probably wouldn’t care, but since I haven’t been in touch with him…

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Explaining My Relationship to Decision-Making

It’s almost October, and that means I’ll soon be celebrating another birthday. It also means that the Sun has moved into Libra. I realize that, for some people, that solar transition means absolutely nothing. I appreciate that some people do not believe in astrology, and being a Libra, I would never force them to change their tune. But given what I’ve learned about the Libran character, it is difficult for me to disregard how a Sun sign might foretell behavior. In fact, I find the information helpful. In fact, in the realm of decision-making, my being a Libra pretty much explains everything. So I’ll take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned. If you roll your eyes at my reasoning, that’s your prerogative. (And I’m guessing you’re a Scorpio.)

Libras are known for their rather labored approach to decision-making. We’re the sign of the scales, and it is in our nature to weigh all aspects of an issue. It is in our nature to be fair. Extremely, painstakingly, tediously fair.

For people whose workday begins with changing into a judge’s robe, this bent toward circumspect decision-making is probably convenient (for all parties concerned). But for a gal who just wants to go out and do some quick shopping, this weighing thing is a pain in the ass. Once, during my college years in New York, I had some money to buy a new winter coat. It was going to be the first winter coat I ever bought “on my own,” and so it was a rather momentous occasion. I spent quite a bit of time in a relatively small clothing store on Madison Avenue. After more than an hour, I narrowed down my choice to two coats – a navy one and a black one. In addition to being different colors, they were quite different styles, thus bringing far too many factors into the decision-making process.

As I tried on the “other” coat for the nth time, the saleswoman, who had been patient with me up to that point, asked, “Are you a Gemini?”

“No,” I said, sensing – and at that point, sharing – her frustration. “A Libra.”

“Oh, God, that’s worse,” she said. “Take the black one!”

“Thank you,” I responded, realizing how desperately I appreciated the intervention. “I will.”

I put the black coat on the counter, and she began to ring up the sale. At that point, I felt she was my new best friend, and so I confided, “You’ll notice how no one accompanies me shopping.”

It was an observation I had made over the preceding years, and it was one that my family joked about. I really am impossible to shop with. I act as if every decision were going to change the direction in which the earth is spinning. But it seems I can’t help it. The stars have made it that way…


In the mid-90’s, when I was working at a nonprofit in downtown Los Angeles, I had a co-worker named Robert. Robert, who was several years younger than I and who had married recently, was also a Libra. Having not looked at his astrological profile as carefully as I, he was intrigued when I began to describe some of the traits we shared. When I mentioned the shopping thing, he laughed, nodded, and indicated that he understood.

I told him about the time I was in the Woolworth’s in New York, selecting a shower curtain. I went into one of those Libran shopping trances, I told him. Each $2.00 shower curtain had a unique pattern, of course, and each featured different colors. So I had much to consider. As I picked up one shower curtain package after another, I was reviewing, in my mind, the colors of the towels that my husband and I had. I was considering the colors of the tiles in our bathroom. I was re-assessing the shower curtains’ patterns themselves. Did I want fish? Were flowers too girly? God, the questions!

The strange, strained look on my face caught the attention of a Woolworth’s sales associate, a man sporting a blue smock that featured a friendly name tag. He approached me and regarded the eight packages of shower curtains I was holding (these were the finalists). “Lady!” he said, “How many shower curtains do you need?”

Where was the Madison Avenue saleswoman when I needed her? Where was the person who might say, “Just get the blue one with the fish! It’s a fucking two-dollar shower curtain, for God’s sake!”

I probably also told Robert about the time when I was at a department store in a Los Angeles mall, and I tried on so many pairs of sunglasses that a security guard began hovering behind me. The guard probably reasoned that the exorbitant amount of time I was spending trying on an exorbitant number of sunglasses was all part of a plan to pocket at least one pair. But, I wasn’t looking to steal. And, in fact, the decision-making was so daunting that I just walked away. No new sunglasses for me that day. I was just too overwhelmed by the options.

Robert enjoyed my anecdotes, and I learned the next morning, when he came into my office, that they had provided him with some enlightenment. “I told my wife about the Libra thing and shopping,” Robert said, referring to a conversation he had with his new bride the previous night. “You totally hit the nail on the head! She hates shopping with me! I drive her crazy!


Robert and I continued to bond over our common idiosyncrasies, and one day, when I went into his office to see if he had a dictionary, I learned how clearly he had come to understand the burden we Libras carry. I was looking for a dictionary that day because our boss had edited a grant proposal I drafted, and she suggested, in her edit, that the word “reexamine” should be hyphenated. Being the stickler I am, I wanted to consult an almighty reference book before making the change.

Robert directed me to his dictionary, and as I opened it, I told him why I was needing it. He continued about his work as I looked up the word. When I found the entry for “reexamine” and learned that, according to that dictionary, the word could either be hyphenated or not, I really felt the onset of a quandary.

“Oh great,” I said in frustrated tone that was driven by playfulness.

“What?” he asked.

“It could go either way,” I let him know.

Robert sighed for both of us and looked at me with matter-of-fact concern and a gleam in his eye. “Well,” he said, “There goes your day!”


My next staff job was at a higher ed institution, where I was the Rob Petrie of the three-person proposal writing team. Our administrative support came from Lisa, who prepped all proposals for final packaging. Lisa, who was quickly becoming a friend, knew of my decision-making dilemmas. And, often-times, she was more in tuned to them than I was.

One day, she wanted to consult with me about a budget page that she had completed. I was standing in the middle of the writers’ room when she approached. She gave no hint of being anything other than professional as she held up the sheet and pointed to the bottom line number. “This grand total,” she said, quite seriously, “Should I bold it or give it a double-underscore?”

She then watched my face as it took on an extremely pained look. She watched the busy- ness that was taking place therein and amused herself as she imagined what considerations I could possibly be entertaining. When it was clear we might miss the deadline waiting for my answer, she smiled her broad smile. “GOTCHA!” she said, as she ran off to make the decision herself.


So there I’ve been in life. Deliberating for minutes and hours-on-end about shower curtains, sunglasses, hyphenations, and the appearance of fonts.

And yet there have been other decisions that seemed to take no time whatsoever: Should I get married? Sure! Move to California? Why not? Quit my job? Absolutely! Quit this job, too? Yup. And this one? Face it; it sucks. Even though I don’t have another job lined up? When has that stopped you before? Buy a new car? Gotta drive!

When I drove my 1998 Honda Civic off the lot, it had seven miles on the odometer, and I was committed to five years of car payments. I could swing it, I knew, and I wasn’t bothered by the commitment. But I was struck by how quickly I had made the decision. I would recount the adventure later, telling friends, “My God, I chose a car faster than I choose a parking space!”

Which is when it dawned on me: It’s the small decisions I cannot seem to make…

It took a few years, but I have finally reached a place where I can apply that discovery to everyday life. I have learned that if I can’t make a decision quickly, then I just don’t care. What a freeing revelation this has been! I have a formula now! When a question is asked of me, I either answer immediately or I volley it back to the person who posed it. “Surprise me!” I say.

As I’ve come to understand my relationship to decisions, and as I have freed myself up by letting others make the smaller ones, I also have come to appreciate my ease with the larger ones. It’s about intuition. It comes from the gut.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Drinking the Virtual Kool-Aid

A few months ago, Kevin Spacey was a guest on Letterman. Several minutes into the dialogue, Dave asked the actor if he “did the twitter.”

From watching Letterman’s show fairly regularly, I have gleaned that Dave is averse to online social networking, and while there’s curiosity behind his questioning, he’s not likely to change his attitude. Perhaps, when he asks a question about twittering, he’s looking for someone to explain – in terms he can genuinely understand – why everyone is so engaged in this new tweeting-and-following phenomenon. Perhaps he just likes to initiate a dialogue that will afford him several opportunities to look bemused and perplexed.

Spacey’s answer did, in fact, lead to some classic quipping from Letterman, and that amused me. But what stayed with me – and what has motivated me – was how the actor introduced his response. I am not claiming to quote him directly (though it’s possible I’ve remembered it verbatim); regardless, Spacey said this: “Yeah, I was resistant for a long time, but my business partner told me I had to, so I drank the Kool-Aid.”

…He drank the Kool-Aid.

What an interesting metaphor. Sadly, it began in 1978, when hundreds of people committed suicide together. And from that day in Jonestown, it has become the catch-phrase for buying into a perspective and agreeing to embark on the path of whatever individual(s) or dynamic(s) are leading that perspective. And you have to believe, when someone uses the metaphor, that there’s something rather negative underlying the choice of words. When someone says that they “drank the Kool-aid,” you can’t help but believe that they were led kicking and screaming to the trough.

But I am so grateful for Kevin Spacey’s use of the metaphor. I am grateful because I relate to it. I don’t want to participate in the world of online social networking. I find it inherently impersonal, often narcissistic, and completely overloaded.

On the other hand, I have to face the reality of today: people spend more time online than they do offline. They get their news, their views, and their “bemuse” from whatever they can type into their search engine. So…

I’m approaching the trough, and my intention is to return to it about once a week.

I don’t have a plan (and I’m not sure I’ll ever have one). I’m just going to write and share. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find folks who want to know about the other things I’ve written.

If you don’t know my work, something that relates remarkably to this premiere entry is my Amazon Short, “Too Many Machines.” For a mere forty-nine cents (yes, I spelled that out because it’s so damned quaint as prices go), you can download a copy of a Seussian poem that I wrote in 1987. Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why I’ve resisted this marketing vehicle for such a long time.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

More to come,
Katie Gates