Category Archives: story telling

car hop

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My first job was as what was called a car hop at an A&W in Iowa. I was just 14 — you’re legally allowed to work young in farm states — and I used my babysitting money to buy the uniform I needed from a medical apparel shop: a white polyester nurse’s tunic, zip front with big patch pockets, and matching trousers. This A&W was located along a stretch of Highway 6, a straight flat road lined with cornfields on either side. Looking back, the whole enterprise seems dubious. The iffy ROI of paying $20 for that uniform, for a job with an hourly wage of $1.25. Biking along the highway to get there wearing that scratchy white get-up, trucks barreling alongside my Schwinn. Biking home under the muggy night sky, my tips jingling in the patch pockets—dimes, sticky with root beer. But especially dubious was delivering the orders that got called in from the motel next door to the A&W. Now mostly, I’d carry food on trays that I’d hook onto the customers’ car windows. But a couple times a night, I’d be asked to carry a tray across the parking lot to the back of the motel, knock on a door and wait for the man—it was always a man—to answer.

One such scene: a man wearing underpants standing at the door with a woman lying in bed, her bare back turned toward me, just visible in the flickering light of the motel TV. When she turned toward me, a white breast flashed in the darkness.

The man noticed me noticing her. He winked, opened the door wider as if to invite me in.

“Thanks, darlin’” He said, laughing, paying for his burgers, slipping a dollar tip into one of those patch pockets.

I backed away then ran across the weedy motel parking lot to the safety of my A&W.

“Gosh,” I remember thinking, feeling shaky and a little thrilled, although I’m not sure I knew why. At the time, I probably chalked it up to that dollar tip. A whole dollar!

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bougainvillea

My grandfather used to sweep up bougainvillea blossoms from the patio every morning. Their Ventura home had a solid wall of the fuchsia flowers and they drifted down in the night air. When I lay in my tiny off-the-garage storage/bedroom I thought I could hear them, their light scrap and skitter as the moved across the patio tiles. Coming from Iowa, I was well impressed about nearly everything in California: the palm trees, the pools, the surfers and their matted blonde hair and suntanned bodies. One morning, watching my grandfather clean up the bougainvillea blossoms, recording my thoughts in my diary, it struck me that even the stuff California swept up and threw away was beautiful. Thought of this when I rode past these flowers today. I’m still well impressed by you, California.

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Why Poetry?

Why now? Why at all? Daniel Halpern’s essay in the New York Times found answers to these questions by emailing notable poets and researching what past poets said about their medium. There are anecdotes that get to poetry’s essential nature. The Greek Poet Yiannia Ritso was jailed, wrote poems on cigarette papers and walked out at the end of his sentence wearing his collected poems stuffed in the lining of his jacket. From Moonlight Sonata (1956) about an old woman in an old house, thinking about death, translated from the Greek.

But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you.

Then there’s the Ukraninain poet Irina Raushinkskaya, also jailed, who wrote her poems on bars of soap and when she had memorized them, washed them away.

Are these two stories true? Is poetry true? What is true? What is truth? These are the questions poetry puts before you, like leaves on a tree, waving madly, like vivid flags, in the wind, if only you would stop to notice them. If only you could get out of your own thoughts and notice them. From Raushinkskaya’s I Will Live and Survive:

I will live and survive and be asked:

How they slammed my head against a trestle, 

How I had to freeze at nights, 

How my hair started to turn grey… 

But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke 

And brush away the encroaching shadow. 

And I will render homage to the dry September 

That became my second birth. 

And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?’ 

Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 

But the former names will detonate my memory – 

Magnificent as old cannon. 

And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 

The most tender, but also the most invincible, 

How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured, 

How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 

And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 

When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls, 

And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 

And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 

And I will tell of the first beauty 

I saw in captivity. 

A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls, 

Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 

Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 

A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 

The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 

Those brigand forests, campfires and birds! 

And how many times there was bitter cold weather 

And how many windows sparkled after that one – 

But never was it repeated, 

That upheaval of rainbow ice! 

And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 

And what would be the pretext for the festival? 

Such a gift can only be received once, 

And perhaps is only needed once.

Poetry is personal and for me it makes me read more slowly, stop to notice a frost-covered window, rise above words concerned with politics and celebrity and anything that starts with a hashtag. That’s why.

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Merrie on HuffPost

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Happy to say the Merrie post was picked up by HuffPost.

Funny, being published was such an ordinary thing for me back in my “magazine days.” My words and name in print for a month, then all was recycled. Being published online is both more obscure but also more permanent. Most of us have learned the hard way that it’s impossible to scrub clean the words and images we post in haste, in error, by mistake. You remove them, only to see them pop up again like Suess’ Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Hear that, Caroline?

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The boss of me

He was the editor of a well-known men’s magazine. A short man. Not an attractive man. After I interviewed with him I said to my boyfriend at the time, “Why he looks just as much like a turtle as a man can look.”

This was the 1980s. This was my first media job, although we called it publishing back then. I interviewed in a navy linen suit from Bonwit Teller, nude pantyhose and navy pumps trimmed with flat grosgrain ribbons. I was a 22-year-old from Iowa and I thought the look I should be going for was “appropriate.” 

Read more, right this way >

going up

going up

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The reading rapture

Three women of a certain age come to a certain beach during a certain summer week every year for sun and fun. What does “fun” mean to these women who went to college together and lived in and around New York City in the 1980s and then settled into their lives — which they escape during this week at this beach during this week?

What they’re reading, what they’ve read, books they loved from childhood (one six-hour car ride on a shared loved of fairy tales) and then some trolling through bookstores and sitting on the beach reading silently together and then retiring after wine and conversation (about books) to read ourselves to sleep. There are occasional breaks — memorably, to see Magic Mike, to get our hair cut and, once, to rent a pedal-power surrey with fringe on top.

Children have their Reading Rainbow. We have our Reading Rapture (why “rapture” is a story for another post) and I wouldn’t trade it for any other kind of rapture.

Can people trade in raptures?

Probably not but I wouldn’t, never ever.

book worms

book worms

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the end

Imagine you are a writer (I have trouble with this part too) and there’s a terrible little story rolling around your head. It has to do with something you just learned, something that reverses what you thought was true, something frightening or threatening. The reason it rolls around in your head is that you can’t seem to integrate it with the other stories that make up the story of your life.

Got that?

I am exploring whether telling the story is a means of dispensing with it. Or resolving it, giving it a beginning, middle and end. Isn’t this the purpose of myths and fables and fairy tales? They usually start with a distancing tactic, something like:

 “Once upon a time…”

“In a country far, far away…”

“A thousand years ago or more, when the flowers could still converse with the animals….”

The first line of a fairy tale is written to reassure the reader that nothing that will  follow is remotely possible. That the distant past and the far-away setting and the improbability of the magic and cruelty that happened “in that place and at that time,” was devised to give the reader comfort. This is just a story. Fear not.

a mouse begs the lion to spare his life

a mouse begs the lion to spare his life

So suppose we do this with our own terrible little stories. Put them between a couple of thick and dusty covers of a book. Close the book. Don’t read them again. Or do but with the final sentence foretold, a closure built into the experience in the form of “the end.”

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