Wednesday, August 31, 2011

That Ol' Jack Magic - Unconditional Love in a Faulty Structure: Part Two

A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the second installment of a three-part essay. To begin at the beginning, go here. (Or just scroll down to last Wednesday's post.)


It’s weird for me to think back now on that short dialogue I had with Tim during the pre-Elizabethan era. He had moved into the apartment below mine probably about a year after me. We knew each other’s names, and we had had a few inconsequential conversations, but we were hardly friends. One day, we were both in the stairwell at the same time. I was at the top of the stairs, about to go into my apartment. He was at the bottom of the stairs, leaving his.

“Are you alright?” he asked, in an angry tone. “Because last night, your music woke me out of a deep sleep.” (He was pissed, and he had the right to be.)

“I’m sorry,” I said.

And I let him vent a little more. I apologized again. But I didn’t give the full explanation.

Because I didn’t know Tim then, I didn’t tell him what had preceded that night of loud, let-me-forget-the-day music. I had to put my cat to sleep that day. I had to say good-bye to Kitty, the cat I adopted in New York when I was only 20 years old.

Kitty had been a remarkable presence in my life. When I adopted her at the New York SPCA, I assumed I was bringing back to my college residence a little feline who would entertain my five suitemates and me. A toy; an object for our amusement. But, the tiny black kitten that returned with me to 116th Street wasn’t entertaining. In fact, as I would learn from the vet I took her to a few days later, she was dying.

She had not been weaned properly, and – despite the fatal prognosis – I was given some instructions that might work: I was to combine baby food with appetite enhancer and force it into her mouth with a rubber syringe. My friend Aileen’s boyfriend, Phil, immediately came to the plate to help me with this task, and we were a team. In spite of our teamwork, there always was a lot of sloppy goop tucked between Kitty’s tiny whiskers. But because of the teamwork, Kitty lived. For more than 18 years.

We had gone through a lot, Kitty and I. And part of what we had gone through was what she taught me those first few weeks I knew her: that I could take care of something; that I could give that something unconditional love.

It’s weird to think now that I couldn’t share with Tim what I had gone through the previous day. I only could apologize weakly and walk into my apartment, feeling guilty for having woke him up with the music I was blaring well past midnight. Were I going through the same thing today, he would know it. He would know, long before that last trip to the vet, that my cat was dying. And, just as he has offered to drive me to the airport in the years since, he probably would offer to drive me to the vet. And I would accept. I would be able to share the experience with him. Because he is not just my neighbor; he is my friend.


And it’s weird to think what my apartment might still look like if Deb hadn’t moved into the building. Deb, whose eye and sense of daring, immediately pushed the envelope in her own apartment. Deb, who set a precedent for those who might say, “This is my space.”

I didn’t know Deb very well when I sought her advice regarding the painting of my living room, but I trusted her instincts. So I let her pick out the colors, and I followed her every direction. She helped at times, too, and we giggled as we worked together – something about those fumes, something about the whole endeavor. There’s nothing like moving your entire world into the middle of a space and changing the colors around it. Debbi showed me how energizing those changes could be.

And less than a year later, she again would drive the color scheme. I pointed to Colby, my red tabby cat, and said, “That’s the palette I want for my bedroom.” She fanned through her book of paint chips, starred two colors (neither of which actually exists on Colby), and gave me quick verbal instructions as to how to do a particular faux finish. Then, she was off to Colorado for Christmas. I would spend Christmas painting my bedroom, always with her cell phone number close at hand.

By the end of that week, a phenomenal transformation had taken place in my bedroom. And like some 21st Century cubist Cinderella, I would – from that point forward – sleep peacefully inside something that resembles a square pumpkin.


Something was happening, during that time. I was not just changing the color of my apartment. I was changing the color of my life. The unexpected support from the people with whom I shared a roof was kicking in. The comfort was allowing me to open up, to see what the universe had in store.

I had held nonprofit staff jobs for 12 years, and they were never without their share of problems and frustrations. In August 2000, after an unusually lengthy search, I accepted a Development Director position that commanded a high salary (by nonprofit standards). But a bizarre thing happened at about the same time…

I had plans one Saturday to meet my friend Maria in Santa Monica. We’d agreed to a loose agenda. We would eat brunch wherever, and then we’d walk down Main Street. Browse through the shops. My personal agenda was to treat myself to a bracelet – a memory wire bracelet, specifically. (And this was a rather odd agenda for me to entertain. With the exception of earrings, I had never been one to buy – or care much about – jewelry.)

Maria and I picked a brunch spot randomly, and after we ate, we headed south on Main Street. The first store we came upon had window displays that were seductive. Window displays that implied jewelry. We walked in. And I realized immediately that we had just walked into a bead store.

“Hmm…” I thought, scoping the room. “Maybe I’ll just make a bracelet.”


It’s no secret that I have an addictive personality, and by the time I shared my creations with Julie, who was the first of the neighbors to see them, my bowl o’ bracelets already was teeming.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said, in her warm and compassionate way. “You’re going outside yourself.”

Debbi had just returned from a production trip, and Julie saw her before I did. “Katie’s doing something completely different,” Julie told Deb. “And I’m not going to tell you what it is. You just have to see!”

I remember that night in late summer when I debuted my bowl o’ bracelets on Debbi’s stoop. I watched as my neighbor friends pawed over the new collection, trying them on and modeling them for each other. Julie already had bought one. Now Deb and new neighbor Sara would make their selections.

to be continued on September 7th.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday Reruns: Help Not Wanted: Comment Editor

(original post-date: August 25, 2010)

Several months ago, I was having lunch with a gaggle of gals. The conversation turned to a magazine interview that had recently got some attention. A popular musician had made some comments about himself and others, and many of those comments were either prurient, potentially offensive, or both. I won’t mention the musician now because it’s old news and it’s not important to this essay. What I will mention, however, is one of my friends’ statements. Referring to the musician, she said, “He just doesn’t have an editing mechanism when he speaks.”

I did not contribute to the dialogue, but I listened intently. I also felt self-conscious. Why? Because I don’t have that mechanism either.

And you know what? Thank God I don’t! If I had that editor, I would not be able to write fictional dialogue. It would not flow from me. I’d undoubtedly stifle it.

Now, I’ll admit that this deficiency comes at a price. Sometimes, I say things that are utterly inappropriate. I could give you several examples, but I’d rather not embarrass myself. And trust me, the examples I’m thinking of are embarrassing. I recall them with a certain amount of shame. I should, though, also share that – in my adulthood, at least – I don’t think I’ve ever hurt anyone with my off-the-cuff remarks. A desire to hurt people is simply not part of my make-up, so if anything “bad” comes from my lack of editing, it’s generally just bad for me.

But despite those moments when I’m not altogether pleased by hearing what I’ve said at the same time that you hear it, there also have been numerous instances when my spontaneous, unedited remarks result in a hearty laugh. So, in my opinion, it’s a pretty cool deficiency to possess.

Admittedly, a hearty laugh is not always elicited without the participation of a foil. I am therefore grateful that I grew up with a few folks who enjoy this type of humor. There was an occasion when one of them (oh, what the hell, let’s call a Dad a Dad) seemed to not mind his foil status at all. Here’s the story:

I was in my mid-twenties, and I had traveled from Manhattan to Cape Mey, New Jersey, where my parents were gathering with a close circle of friends for their traditional Fourth of July weekend of bridge, tennis, partying, and fireworks. It was good to join the group, as these couples (nine, in all, I think) had been in my life since I was a kid. At one time, the original Bridge Group (a number divisible by four) all lived in the same small community in Virginia. And although their proximity to one another began to change in the late 60’s, when families moved by choice or due to the husband’s employment, the group remained close. (They are to this day.) The Fourth of July weekend was therefore always filled with love and laughter.

The particular weekend I am recalling, I enjoyed hanging with the group as a “fellow adult.” I felt comfortable and relaxed, knowing I’d grown out of that phase of my life when I was destined for the Kiddie Table. Sure, I wasn’t really their peer (let’s face it, they had been driving for probably 20 years when I was walkng to school as a first-grader), but with the collective easy-going attitude that always permeated this group, it was easy to sit back and join the circle.

And we were, in fact, in a circle when the moment occurred. It was a circle of chairs. In the backyard of one of the rental houses. It was the before-dinner hour(s), and everyone had their beverage of choice. To my right and left were many of the wives. I don’t recall where most of the husbands were, but I do know where my father was. Standing. In the middle of the circle. Holding court, as he loved to do. His audience, primarily female.

At one point, he reached for a handful of peanuts from a bowl on one of the small tables. In doing so, he bent his lower torso to such a degree that the inseam of his shorts split from bow to stern. He acknowledged the incident with a grin and a subtle shrug, proceeded to stand tall, and then he casually scarfed down his handful of peanuts.

Which is when one of the wives said, “Oh, Robbins, you show great aplomb.”

Which is when I blurted out, “That’s not a plum!”

Immediately, several women who had known me since I was “yea-high” doubled over laughing.

And Dad – his true reaction hidden behind those WWII Ray Bans – just smiled and kept eating peanuts…


Two quick notes unrelated to the Rerun:

(1) I've joined the Platform-Builders Campaign, which is all about writers supporting writers. You can join, too, but only through this Wednesday (8/31). To learn more, click on the blue/purple button over there on the left, below the Blog Archive list.

(2) I've finally set up an email subscription option. (What took me so long!?) It's also on the left, above the grid with all your lovely faces. Feel free to sign up for emails re my posts, or just keep dropping by for new posts on Wednesdays and reruns on Mondays.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That Ol’ Jack Magic – Unconditional Love in a Faulty Structure: Part One

A NOTE BEFORE READING: Today’s post and the two Wednesday posts that will follow it come from a memoir project: five Catalysts and five Constants. The project’s essays are all quite a bit longer than my usual posts, so I am going to share this one in three installments.

I should make one thing clear from the start: I don’t like Jack.

In fact, there have been times when I really have not liked Jack. And there have been times when my feelings for him have gone way beyond “really not liking.” His behavior and his firm inaction are unfathomable, and because he is nothing more than my landlord, I shouldn’t have to entertain feelings about him – ever. But, on occasion, I have had no choice.

Like that time my kitchen faucet essentially exploded at half past midnight, shooting water across the room. Thank God I had not gone to sleep yet, and thank God my neighbors weren’t sleeping too deeply. Though I didn’t know any one of them very well back then, they responded to my calls for “HELP!” Several of them bailed water out of my kitchen while another figured out how to turn off the flow to the entire building – the only way to end the potentially decapitating stream that was bursting out of the wall.

Jack’s got some messed-up pipes, I want to tell you.

And then there was that really scary time that my leg went through the deck/walkway outside my second-floor kitchen door. When I realized I couldn’t pull it out of the hole it had created, I yelled “HELP!” once again. Neighbors responded. Among them were a few who had become friends.

“Call 9-1-1!” I blurted out, realizing – for the first time in my life – that when you need 9-1-1, you know it. And although it should have been a relief to have the fire department arrive, I couldn’t help but feel even more vulnerable at that point. With five firemen surrounding me, I believed there was no way the deck would hold up. And when it collapsed, I’d still be stuck in the wood. My head cracked open on the pavement below.

But the deck didn’t give, and the firemen did get me out. They had to use an electric saw that I watched as it cut the wood just inches from my leg. By then, a crowd from the neighborhood had gathered. I was convinced after that evening that I would probably be a feature of “Show and Tell” in a few local classrooms the next morning.

Jack’s got some soft wood, I want to tell you.

About four months after the deck incident, I was in my living room with my Mom, who was visiting from Virginia. It was a typically hot October day in L.A., so we had the air conditioner running. (A window unit that came with the apartment; something that could probably get a nice chunk of change at the Antiques Roadshow.) Suddenly, there was a funky smell. I saw smoke coming out of the wall socket into which the air conditioner was plugged. I quickly turned off the unit and called the fire department. They arrived within minutes, checked it out and told me not to use the outlet again until an electrician could make the necessary repairs. I immediately called one, and he came over that afternoon.

The electrician replaced whatever needed to be replaced, and I wrote him a check. When I sent Jack my rent the following month, I enclosed the electrician’s receipt, deducted the cost, and explained my math in a note. The next week, I received a bill from Jack for the amount I had deducted. It stated that no repairs can be made without the landlord’s prior approval.

Jack’s got some strange wiring, I want to tell you.

But there’s one other thing about Jack that I cannot deny or overlook. He brought to this building the most amazing tenants. And he brought to this tenant the most amazing friends. It’s magic. It’s bigger than all of us. And it’s definitely not something that I made happen.


“I’m not a friendly neighbor,” I once confessed to my mother, some months after moving from my marriage into Jack’s building.

“That’s because you lived in New York,” she responded.

Maybe there was truth to her theory. For someone else. But I think, for me, the embracing of privacy came first. I think that the reason I chose New York – for college, and for the eleven years that would follow college – is that I craved the option of being anonymous. After growing up in a small town in Virginia, I didn’t want people to know me or to know my business. Sure, I always would have close friends, and they would know more about me than they probably cared to know, but I still guarded my privacy. And as a tenant, I cultivated it. Until…

“Hi, Katie!” Therese calls out through her first-floor living room window.

“Hi, Therese!” I respond, smiling, as I head to my car in the back lot.

(So much for Mom’s theory, I think. Therese lived in New York, too.)

But Mom’s New York theory was not disproved by Therese. It was disproved by Elizabeth, who had moved into the building several months earlier than Therese. Elizabeth, in her own inimitable style, introduced us all to each other. Elizabeth – who also had lived in New York, by the way – brought to Jack’s building her unique brand of Texan hospitality. She had an indefatigable ability to inspire us to pool our resources for a night of partying. Before we knew it, we all chipped in for a grill. And once we were fed, we gathered in her living room for party games. It became a weekend routine, and one that I welcomed. A nice way to relax and interact without going out.

I still didn’t feel particularly close to any of my individual neighbors, but I was enjoying the communion. It was good to become friendly with these people with whom I shared a roof – with whom I shared the pipes, the wood, and the wiring that were unique to Jack. We always had landlord stories to swap, that’s for sure. And Elizabeth seemed to have more of them than anyone.

Of course, where she was concerned, Jack did have a case. Whether we liked it or not, every eviction notice he ever posted on her door was issued validly. She always seemed to be behind on her rent as she pursued a career that might be worthy of her phenomenal singing voice. And I would miss that voice. I would miss hearing her hit every note perfectly, never requiring musical accompaniment.

And I would appreciate always what she had brought to the building.

The first Christmas season after she moved in, I taped a holiday card to her front door. “Dear Elizabeth,” I had written inside, “When I tell my friends about the new energy in my building, I always tell them that one person made it happen. She’s our building’s ‘Fraulein Maria.’ Because of her, there’s music in the house again. I thank you for that, and my only regret is that Jack bears no resemblance whatsoever to Christopher Plummer. Those are the breaks. Love, Katie.”

Remembering that note now, what strikes me is that when I referred to “friends,” I was thinking about the people I knew outside the building.

…But something would happen around the time Elizabeth moved. The bonds that had been created during loud parties and competitive party games would become stronger. Among a few of us, there would be more quiet, one-on-one moments. We would share problems, secrets, and dreams. We’d still have the larger gatherings on the stoop or around the grill, but something deeper than simple socializing among neighbors was emerging.

to be continued on August 31st.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday Reruns: Quit Your Honking!

(original post-date: August 18, 2010)

Having lived – and therefore driven – in Los Angeles for 20 years, I’ve developed some serious ‘tude behind the wheel.

I know that friends who have ridden with me will question that statement, and I don’t blame them. Fact of the matter is, when I have a passenger, I drive much more cautiously (and therefore rarely reveal my ‘tude.) …I don’t know, maybe it’s some kind of hang-up. Something to do with feeling responsibility for another life. (I guess I’m quirky that way.)

BUT: most of the driving I do, I do alone, and so most of the time, I am as willing as the next reasonable person to take a few highly calculated risks.

However, when the driver behind me suggests, through the honking of a horn, that I take a risk I am not willing to take, I am tempted to throw it all into park and pull out a picnic lunch.

Seriously. Do NOT tell me I should make the left now.

Just. Don’t.

I witnessed someone dealing with this type of dilemma last week – as I was driving on Hollywood Boulevard, heading west. I had just approached the LaBrea intersection, which comprises at least two times as many lanes as exist on most interstates in our country’s heartland. I was first at the red light, middle lane, when I saw what was happening to the poor soul in the left-turn lane of LaBrea’s northbound traffic. The car behind him had honked intrusively, telling the driver at the front of the pack that he should go now. And so, while the driver at the front responded to that honk by moving forward by about six feet, he clearly concluded – after making that honk-inspired move – that, in fact, it wasn’t safe to proceed at that moment.

And so he became stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the aggressive driver behind him who kept honking. The hard place was the east- and west-bound traffic that had now been given the literal green light to move along.

As I made my way across LaBrea (part of the privileged green-lit traffic), I really felt for the guy who had allowed the driver behind him to push him into traffic. And with that aggression at his rear, he had no options for backing up. He just had to remain there – stuck out and at risk of being hit – until the lights changed once again. I detested the guy behind him who so resented being second in line for a left turn. A part of me wanted to stop my car in the middle of the intersection, get out of it, and scold that honking bully! (But that’s a whole other risk, and I’m not stupid.)

I’m also not saying that car horns are without merit. In fact, just two or so years into my L.A. experience, when I was driving a pre-owned Civic, I became quite alarmed when I realized my horn wasn’t working. As a co-worker (who had grown up out here) agreed, “That’s a safety hazard!”

Damn right it is. The horn is an essential tool. There have been dozens of times when I have used it to alert someone to my presence and so to avoid the meeting of metal. It’s my way of telling someone who is being inattentive that this lane is already taken.

In fact, I think that’s the best way to describe the use of a car horn: to alert the inattentive. And sure, I’ve also been on the receiving end of that alert. I actually appreciate it when the car behind me taps quickly to let me know that the light has changed. In the event that I didn’t notice, that alert is helpful.

But: when the car behind me uses its horn to inspire a risk-taking move? Nothing is more likely to make me take my sweet, sweet time…

Hmm… as long as I’m talking about driving, I might as well use this post to share something I do that I consider the best way to secure one’s safety on the freeway (or whatever highly traveled roads are in your neck of the woods). I don’t remember anymore if this is something I came up with or if it is a lesson I learned from someone else. Regardless, it works like a charm, and it works like this:

If you are in heavy traffic and you see that, ahead of you, the traffic is slowing considerably, turn on your hazard lights. The car behind you will immediately begin to slow down. This tip also is great if someone is riding your ass. There is nothing like the blink-blink-blink of the hazard lights to turn that ass-rider’s aggression into “ooh, don’t wanna be near this problem!”

I’m telling you, in these 20 years of driving in L.A., I’ve figured some things out. And one of them is this: power steering isn’t something that comes with your car; it’s what you bring to the road.

Just be sure the power you are looking for comes from a desire for safety, ‘cause if you’re seeking something else – say, a compensation for bedroom failings or a desire to chew out your boss – well then, I got three words for you: QUIT YOUR HONKING!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The End Will Present Itself (Just Let the Art Happen)

About a month ago, I pulled out my huge collection of beads and got drawn into the meditative process of jewelry-making. The foray was inspired by some unexpected sales. Thanks to a volunteer spokesmodel who travels in the right circles, two of my long necklaces got sold.

Correct that. One got sold; another got commissioned. So, in order to meet the commission request, I had to pull out the beads.

Once that happened, I was hooked again. Within two weeks, I’d made about six new long necklaces.

This line of long necklaces is one I started in the summer of ’07, and they are bold in design. Semi-precious stones are the focal point, and they come in large slabs, chunks, and nuggets.

Some are polished. Some are raw. Some are faceted.

I generally throw in a metal as well, and I accent all these primary components with small crystals and an assortment of vintage glass beads.

Although it had been more than a year since I had composed one of these sassy, self-assured four-foot numbers, I quickly returned to the relaxing routine, and as I was into the third or fourth necklace, I had a fascinating revelation: the process I intuitively follow when making a long necklace is exactly the same as the process I have followed when writing a novel.

...When I begin making a long necklace, I have no vision of the ultimate design. I have only a palette of beads, sitting in one of two small plates within reach.

With one half of the toggle clasp crimped onto the end of an adequately long piece of beading wire, I begin stringing the beads.

I don’t give it a lot of thought; I just relax and let the art happen.

At every one- to three-inch interval, I study what I have composed, and if there is something not quite right in the order of a few beads, I know it immediately. I remove the bead sequence that seems misdirected, and I restring, thus fixing the problem.

...When I wrote my first novel, The Somebody Who, I had one idea: a woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s would begin dating. I didn’t know how that dating would happen or what would result from it, but I liked the concept.

Before I got fully into the writing, I selected my characters. The biggest “bead” was Evelyn, and her family -- a husband, four children, and two of their spouses -- were primary among the other nuggets, slabs, and chunks.

(Some polished. Some raw. Some faceted.)

A few individuals outside the family also were in the mix, and with the palette thus established, I’d write a chapter or two, letting the dialogue and therefore the plotline go where it might.

The day after each night’s writing session, I’d review what I had written the previous evening, and where “beads” needed to be removed or rearranged, I made the edits.

...In my long necklaces, this intuitive approach continues for the first twenty-four inches or so. As many as twenty times, I hold up my work-in-progress and look at the latest “chapter.” When necessary, I readjust the order of things.

Once I’ve passed the halfway mark, however, the process changes. At that point, I deliberately hold up the necklace and study it. I bring the exposed wire up to the crimped toggle. I consider the necklace’s eventual end with its now-established beginning.

Which is to say, on the right is a beaded half-a-necklace; on the left is a naked string.

This is when I begin planning. This is when I consciously decide what beads I want to use next. I choose the order of placements as I work my way up to the final bead.

...By about the halfway point of The Somebody Who, all the characters had emerged fully, and because they had, they also needed to go in particular directions. I would find myself in the middle of writing one chapter when the idea for a subsequent chapter would pop into my head. I’d quickly jot it down and return to the page at hand. The further I got into the second half, the more ideas I had for the final chapters.

Similarly, with my second (not yet published) novel, Martin Lost and Found, weird things happened once I made that homestretch turn.

I had begun that novel with only the germ of an idea. On a sheet of paper, I wrote: “Regaining hope. The shit hits the fan. See what happens.”

Martin – my distinctly primary bead (raw, but also faceted) – had a face and a voice at the novel's start. I also gave him a context when I placed him in an apartment building in my neighborhood.

Slowly, the other characters (co-workers and neighbors) emerged, and as they spoke and interacted with him, their value to the story became apparent.

After what would become the halfway mark, I was once again jotting down ideas for future chapters.

At one point, I made a note that the novel’s final scene should take place at a certain restaurant.

And when I reached the end, and one of the smaller primary beads (polished, despite his youth) insisted that I look up the meaning of that restaurant’s name, that name turned out to be perfect.

In meaning, the restaurant's name was pretty much the same as “regaining hope.”

...I love the ride.

I love the ride when I just let the art happen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Reruns: The Perfectionist Dentist from Hell

(original post date: August 11, 2010)

I know a lot of people have dentist horror stories, and I also believe– from listening to those stories – that the horror stems not from what actually happened at the dentist’s office, but rather from what the individual’s own fear brought to the procedures. Some people simply can’t descend into that slick, contoured chair without conjuring up images from Marathon Man.

I never had those fears.

At least, not until I was in my early 30’s.

As a child, I’d had what were probably standard experiences for anyone born in the late 50’s. My earliest visits to the dentist – and specifically, those appointments that called for having a cavity filled – included no pain-numbing injections. My dentist – an old-fashioned gent who stood while he drilled and who played the sax in a combo band when he wasn’t wearing his white coat – simply took the process slowly. He pulled back when it was clear that the nerve was alarmed. After a moment, he would proceed. Sure, it hurt. But only in spurts. And only a little.

By my teen years, our family had switched to another dentist. This man, who was younger than the first, recommended the use of Novocain, and since I wasn’t afraid of an injection (I mean, you don’t have to look at the needle), I said, “Bring it on.”

After all those years of feeling the process of having a cavity filled, the numbing afforded by Novocain was an absolute treat. Beyond that, this younger dentist did what dentists have done from that point forward: he sat on a stool and put the patient in full recline mode.

For me, the opportunity to lie down in the middle of the day was a gift. The fact that I didn’t feel a thing made that gift an invitation to nap. I’m not saying I ever fell asleep in my dentist’s chair, but I was always phenomenally relaxed.

I will confess one exception to that statement, and my dentist got a kick out of it. My appointment, you see, was about a day ahead of one of my prep school finals, and I needed to study. So… I brought my notes with me, and as my dentist worked in my mouth, I held the notes above me in the air, and I read them.

He drilled.

I memorized.

The numbing in my mouth was completely gone a full 24 hours before I aced the exam.

Fast forward to my adulthood.

More dentists, here and there.

In New York, never a problem.

In Los Angeles, somehow trickier.

And as I was looking for one near my then-apartment in what is called “Beverly Hills adjacent,” a co-worker recommended her dentist.

We’ll call him Dr. Blatt.

During my premiere visit with Dr. Blatt, I was struck by the seeming passion he brought to his work. He appeared to be remarkably interested in every tooth in my mouth, and as he conveyed his observations to his assistant (and she took notes), his statements straddled a fence between dental speak and English. I got the impression that he was a bit anal.

As I walked home from the appointment (yes, I walked home – in L.A. – that’s how convenient this dentist was!), I thought, Hey, a perfectionist working on my teeth? I could do worse!

A week or so later, I went in for the first of several follow-up appointments. On this particular morning, Dr. Blatt would be working on the upper left quadrant. Apparently, there was a cavity up there, and it needed to be filled.

Until the day of this appointment, I had never experienced a “dental dam,” and for those who don’t know what I’m referring to, I’ll try to paint the picture as quickly as possible. A dental dam is a very thin, round rubber thing that the dentist places in your mouth. In the middle of it, there is a hole that is flush with your throat and allows you to breathe. The remaining rubber is there to prevent uninteresting parts of your mouth from getting in the way of the procedure at hand.

As for the procedure at hand, that is accomplished by forcing the designated work area through the dental dam. I.e., if the dentist is working on a molar near the back of your upper left quadrant, s/he pushes the dam until that tooth – and, I’m guessing, a few neighboring teeth – make their appearance on the working side of the rubber barrier.

So, class, are you with me?

It was new to me, too, but it all went fine. I was reclined, I was relaxed, and since Dr. Blatt was speaking only dental speak with his assistant, I had nothing to listen to but the sound of my body not having to be at work.

I was so relaxed, in fact, that at one point, Dr. Blatt returned to using English words with which I was familiar: “Katie?” he said, soothingly, “ Are you still alive? Because if you’re dead, there’s really no reason to continue.”

Maybe that’s dental humor. Anyway, it didn’t offend me. (I took it as a compliment, actually.) I’m sure I smiled with my eyes.

A week or two later, I was back for more. Another quadrant to be dealt with. This time, it was the lower left.

I was relaxed, numbed and ready to go when Dr. Blatt pushed the dam over the designated work area. And that’s when my jaw moved a bit.

(You see, I have kind of a popping jaw. Not a big issue. Not one for which I have ever sought counseling, but, yes, it pops.)

Dr. Blatt began with his procedure, speaking dental speak to his assistant, and for the first 45 minutes or so, I was okay. There was no pain in the area that they were working on, but slowly… slowly… the jolt to my jaw was starting to mess with my sense of alright. I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable. I was beginning to feel downright nauseous.

I should mention now that one of the little quirks of Dr. Blatt is that, before any procedure, he provides his patient with a little hand mirror in case you want to watch his work!

(In retrospect, I could slap myself for not seeing the red flag in that! I mean, who the hell wants to watch that shit going on? Are you kidding?)

Anyway, I’m lying there, not nearly as relaxed as I had been during the prior appointment. The pain from the jaw pop is starting to get to me in a big way. And, I’ve got this damn dam in my mouth. I’m prone. This is so not a good time to be sick.

I’m seriously concerned, and the gravity of that feeling compels me to communicate as best I can.

I begin to make moaning sounds.

Dr. Blatt responds to those sounds by switching from dental speak to regular English. In a register louder than mine, he begins to tell his assistant about the luncheon he attended the previous week.

I’m lying there in pre-vomit pain and the bastard is ignoring me!

I tap my fingernails on the “patient mirror” that I’ve been holding in my hand. Those taps provide a percussive accompaniment to my continued moans.

Dr. Blatt speaks even more loudly about the luncheon.

I begin to kick my feet up and down, still moaning, still tapping the mirror.

FINALLY, Dr. Blatt acknowledges me, and in a tone that is belittling, he says, “I think Katie wants to tell us something!”

I sit up, and with all the Marcel Marceau in my soul, I mime, “Get this fucking goddamn dam out of my goddamn fucking mouth!” (Pardon my French, Marcel.)

Dr. Blatt removes the dam.

I take a deep breath, and I tell him, “I’m sorry, I feel like I’m going to be sick.”

He turns his head dramatically.

“And now I feel sick,” he says, “because now I am going to have to finish the procedure without the dam.”

Poor Dr. Blatt.

Poor inhumane, sociopathic, perfectionist, let-him-be-road-kill Dr. Blatt.

A week or so later, I was due to go back to him, and I guess I hadn’t fully processed the trauma he caused me because my intention was to keep the appointment. But, when I woke up on the morning when I was due in his office at 9:00, the first thing I did was cry.

I cancelled, needless to say, and I never saw that bastard again.

I’ve had the same dentist now for more than 12 years. He’s wonderful, as is his staff.

I’ve regained my ability to enjoy the opportunity that a dental appointment provides.


…During the day.

The work at hand? …Somebody else’s problem.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Scare Tactics

At the risk of offending you and/or causing you to worry, I will begin with a confession: I smoke.

I have smoked for more than quite a few years, and although I stopped for a while twice, the stopping didn’t take.

When I did stop, though, it wasn’t all that difficult, and I believe the ease with which I quit (however temporarily) was directly related to my strong desire to do so. I am eminently stubborn. I do what I do when I want to do it. That includes smoking, and that includes quitting.

I’ve been a little off-put (a “little?” – make that, A LOT) by all the recent legislation that puts us smokers in the realm of second-class citizenry. Yes, I know it’s bad. (How could I not know that?) But, banning smoking from outdoor areas of Los Angeles restaurants?

Imagine the scene:

“No, sir,” the West Hollywood waiter says, “I’m sorry. You can’t smoke out here. But, when you’ve paid for those five martinis, the valet will be ‘round with your car. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy inhaling the exhaust fumes from Sunset Boulevard.”

In my opinion, there are three things wrong with that picture. I defy you not to agree with me about two of them.

And recently, I also was dismayed to learn that my beloved New York City has nary a smoking section. Not in the whole city!


God, I must be a dirty, awful person. I don’t even know how I get out of bed in the morning!

Okay, so the latest is the plan for cigarette packaging. I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now. Beginning on some date in the not-too-distant future, a full third of cigarette packages will feature graphic photographs of the ugly truths: mouth cancer, chest incisions, tracheotomies. I’ve been thinking ahead, and my plan is to do one of two things – cover the photographs with duct tape or transfer the cigarettes into tamer packages that I’ll start squirreling away as the launch date approaches.

Seriously, I’m not carrying those photos around with me. I could just as easily tape a photograph of a bad car wreck onto my steering wheel…

So, yes, I’m one of those stubborn people who isn’t going to quit when the new packaging comes out.

And, yes, I’m not alone.

My knowing I’m not the only one was confirmed several weeks ago during the final segment of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The show’s host, Peter Sagal, posed a question to the three panelists – a question they would answer after the break. He asked (and I’m paraphrasing here): When the graphic cigarette packaging doesn’t get people to quit, what will they try next?

The panelists’ responses were fairly amusing, but not so amusing as to make me remember them... Besides, I was a little distracted in the moment. Because, just in that moment, I realized what would make me quit.

Bush and Cheney.


If the tobacco companies put photographs of either George W. Bush or Dick Cheney on cigarette packages, I would not buy them. Because the idea of paying money for a picture of either of those two bastards absolutely riles me.

I just couldn’t do it.

I just couldn’t.

And so, my non-smoking friends, if you’re worried about my habit and want to take action to put me on the road to recovery, write letters to the appropriate persons-in-charge. Suggest the Bush/Cheney packaging. It may not do the trick for other smokers, but I guarantee you, that’s the sure-fire way to get me to quit for good!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday Reruns: This is Going to Sound Weird, but...

(original post-date: August 4, 2010)

Last week, one of my favorite clients sent me an email. She let me know that they’d soon be “adding a sub-domain to their splash page,” and so… she might need my help with some language. Before ending her missive, she commented on the jargon she was using, and I could sense that her eyes were rolling with irony and amusement as she typed.

I appreciated what drove her comment about the jargon. The fact of the matter is, she and I have laughed – for a few years now – over our common (and often reluctant) emergence from the luddite trenches. Both of us baby boomers, we are doing our best to keep up with the times.

That same day last week, I sent an email to another client. This particular email was sent to assuage my client’s concerns. I wanted to ensure her that I had not missed a prospective grantmaker’s automatic reply to our online Stage One application. In fact, I had retrieved that reply from my “Suspect Mail” just an hour before my client sent her relatively alarmed message.

“Don’t worry,” I shared, typing quickly before hitting SEND, “I check my spam at least four times a day.”

And that’s when it hit me.

Imagine, for a minute…

Imagine if, 15 years ago, someone had said to you, “I check my spam at least four times a day.”

How many red flags?

Okay, the first and most obvious one is the OCD flag. And, mind you, I’m not belittling that issue; I’ve got some of my own OCD manifestations. I’m big on expiration dates, for example. (Don’t get me started.) And, the checking thing? There’s a pre-departure routine that revolves around my kitchen; I always do it at least three times.

So, okay, that’s one way the statement might have seemed alarming 15 years ago. The “checking” … The “four times a day”…

But what about the reference to spam?

And what's in those cans, anyway? Does that weird meat concept even exist anymore?

(Pardon me while I do a Google search...)

I’m back, folks, and guess what. Spam does exist anymore. Not only that, it was the first hit!

Forward-thinkers, those meat canners. How smart they were to grab the domain of “” and make it their own before the cyber-geeks had a chance to take it and run with it. Damn. Good for Spam. But still, I’m not quite sure what it is… And, that site of theirs (however primary on the search results page) isn’t helping.

(Pardon me while I go to Wikipedia…)

Okay, I can’t possibly paraphrase (nor do I want to, really), so I’ll just share here what we might as well call the Wiki Executive Summary of Spam. (And if this whets your appetite, I strongly suggest a nutrition counselor.)

Spam is a canned precooked meat product made by the Hormel Foods Corporation. The labeled ingredients in the classic variety of Spam are chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, and sodium nitrite to help keep its color. Spam’s gelatinous glaze, or aspic, forms from the cooling of meat stock. The product has become part of many jokes and urban legends about mystery meat, which has made it part of pop culture and folklore.

Pop culture and folklore, huh?

It’s kinda nice to know those concepts have a shelf life in our fast-paced cyberworld.

… I’ve never eaten Spam, and I don’t think I ever will (despite its undoubtedly seductive gelatinous glaze). And so I am especially glad that there aren’t seven or eight cans of it confronting me when I peer into the kitchen cupboard. If there were, I’d have to throw those cans in the trash. I’d have to make room for the seven or eight more that are likely to appear out of nowhere in the next several hours.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Whither Penmanship?

There’s a really campy movie that was produced in 1956. Based upon the 1954 novel by William March, The Bad Seed was also produced as a play. I’ve read both the novel and the play, and I've seen the movie two or three times. Knowing the plot line has never ruined it for me, but if you think it will do that for you, consider this your spoiler alert.


The “bad seed” exists within -- and becomes an appropriate moniker for -- Rhoda Penmark, the story's pivotal character. Although Rhoda behaves like a lovely little girl much of the time, her mean streak is also pretty obvious. As it turns out, she inherited a homicidal gene from her mother’s side of the family. And in addition to killing the building caretaker (who seems to be aware of Rhoda’s evil side), she also is guilty of killing Claude Daigle, a classmate.

And why did she kill Claude Daigle, you might ask?


(And Rhoda clearly believed that she should have won.)

...Remember penmanship?

I do.

I even remember that it was called the Palmer Method.

I remember penmanship being a part of third and fourth grade curriculum, and I remember excelling at it. I could mimic the strokes easily, and so I had it down. Always an A+ on that particular line of my report card.

But what I never told my teachers back then was that I couldn’t wait to be done with penmanship grades. I couldn’t wait because I wanted to experiment. And so, beginning in the 5th grade or so, I began exploring my options. I tried all kinds of possibilities, often imitating the penmanship of those who seemed to have found a unique and expressive world when they put pen to paper. It was probably my sophomore year in college before I found a penmanship that suited me.

The penmanship I’ve used since I was 19 or so doesn’t resemble the Palmer Method in the least. It’s more up and down than slanted. There’s not a whole lot of fanciness to it. But my energy is apparent. My penmanship reflects my personality.

… I heard on NPR recently that schools are no longer teaching penmanship (which we also used to call “real writing”).

I understand their decision, I guess.

After all, with computers being the place where people write, why teach such archaic strokes of the pen? I mean, typing is pretty much everything a kid needs to know these days, right?




There’s something truly satisfying about “finding” your penmanship. There’s something about that moment – of knowing you’re there – that tells you that a part of you has settled at last.

...There’s also the issue of signatures.

This part I really don’t get.

These kids growing up today. Kids who are not being taught “real writing”… How the hell are they supposed to sign their names?

...Of course, Rhoda Penmark signed her name in quite a unique way, didn’t she? Killing a classmate over a penmanship medal.

I’m not saying I want the topic to engender all kinds of competitive angst.

I just want to believe that kids can know from “real writing.”

I want them to experience what I did – finding my penmanship.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Reruns: At Your Service

(original post date: July 28, 2010)

Several years ago, I was having dinner with a friend at the Louise’s here in Los Feliz. The waiter approached our table, and as servers now do, de rigueur, he introduced himself.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Jan [pronounced YON], and I will be your server tonight.”

My first thought was to share with him, Oh-my-god, that’s the name of the workstation I just bought at Ikea! But I held back. Instead, I smiled and politely said, “And I’m Katie. And I’ll be your customer!”

And so we went on from there. A lovely night, complete with fresh ground pepper and shaved parmesan until we said “when.”

… Such a different world from my waitressing years in Manhattan. Back in the 80’s, nobody knew your name. I spent seven years waitressing in NYC, and in those years, I worked at 24 restaurants. The last five of those years I spent at ONE restaurant. Do the math.

Yeah. So there were some years of hopping around, looking for the place where I could hang my apron for a while.

At one point during the drifting phase, I was working a lunch shift in the Wall Street area, and my friend and neighbor, who had a non-stop station at a family-owned Hungarian restaurant in our Upper West Side neighborhood, had persuaded that establishment’s owner and owneress to allow me to fill in for her on Wednesday nights. (I would later take over her full shift, after she was fired, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Okay, so I’m working Wall Street lunches, Monday through Friday, and on Wednesday nights, I’m at the Hungarian place in my own ‘hood. Money’s good enough, but I’m always looking for a new venue. For this reason, I’ve consistently combed the environs, dropping off -- to restaurant owners and managers all along the west side of Manhattan -- my home-made, so-very-low-tech, 3x5 index cards. The cards indicate my availability as a waitress. They also provide contact information.

By about the fourth or fifth Wednesday at the Hungarian place, I’m getting a sense of the drill. My station comprises nine “deuces” (that’s restaurant lingo for a table for two) and three “rounds” (which can seat up to eight per table). And if that sounds like a lot of station, your sense of empathy is commendable. Add to that sheer person capacity an acute absence of trays. The acrobatics I learned at that restaurant are a subject for another essay, and so we’ll come back to that at another time.

Regardless, on the Wednesday evening in question, I’m running around like usual. I’m wearing one of my mix ‘n match waitress outfits (“Restaurant Garanimals,” as it were). In this case, the combo started with a straight-lined beige skirt that falls just below knee-length but has sassy side pleats. Topping it off, above my tie-in-the-back, two-pocketed, standard issue waitress apron is a raw linen, short-sleeved, tailored plaid top whose primary color is red.

With harried energy, I approach a young couple sitting in one of the deuces. I smile as I ask if they’re ready. They are. And after they place their order, I move on. Within two or three minutes, I return to deliver their drinks. Thereafter, in sequence, I deliver their appetizers, their main courses, their desserts, and their coffees.

Just as I do for the other 20 or so couples I wait on during a four-hour shift that night.

Just as I do for the parties of six or more that take up the larger tables in my constantly turning-over station.

By the following Saturday, I’m ready for a weekend off, but I also know that my index cards are out there. Anything can happen.

Sure enough, late Saturday evening, I get a call from a local restaurant owner named Augie. His Sunday brunch waitress has phoned in sick. He’s wondering if I can fill in. I accept the offer.

I awake that Sunday morning just before eight. Shower and put on my beige skirt and red plaid top. Head down to the local eatery. (Augie’s is just west and south of my apartment; about the same walking distance as the Hungarian restaurant, which is east and north.)

When I get to Augie’s in time for the nine o’clock set-up (no one is expected before ten – this is New York, after all), I wrap the apron around my waist and introduce myself to the bartender.

The bartender is relaxed and kind. He shows me where I can find everything for set-up (creamer pitchers, all the sidestand stuff, coffee makings). He reviews the menu with me. He introduces me to the kitchen staff. He makes it clear that I can call on him if I get in a jam. (Oh, and yeah, he shows me the jam…)

Customers filter in, and while it gets a little busy at times, it never feels out of control. (After the Hungarian place, I can handle anything.) The bartender even comments on my cool at one point. He is clearly impressed by my capacities as a “guest-waitress.”

I am in the rhythm of Augie’s when I approach a couple in the corner.

“Ready to order?” I ask, smiling, my pad held in front of me, my pen primed to record their needs.

There’s a pause. The man in the pair stares up at me and adapts a dumb-founded look.

“Hey!” he says, “Didn’t you wait on us at the Hungarian place on Wednesday?”

Sure enough.

That same couple.

And me, in the same outfit.

Were it fifteen years later, my approach might have gone something like this:

“Hello, my name is Katie, and I will be your server for the rest of your life!

* * *

Aug 2011 NOTE: Dear Readers, Followers, and Passers-By: I’m happy to direct you to Get Busy Writing, where blogger Emily Rittel-King has a weekly feature called "Blogger Mentor Mondays." I am her guest today, and so I hope you'll drop by and check out our interview as well as some of her past posts. And, thank you, Emily!