I live in New Jersey. That’s right. New Jersey. I’m a Jersey girl and I’m PROUD of it. Yeah, it’s not easy living here. Driving here is like a treacherous video game. It’s five degrees below too damned cold. The ground is covered with that hideous white nonsense that afflicts it each winter. Weekly threatening storm reports mean shortages of toilet paper, shovels, and Cheetos. It isn’t always easy living in the chilly Northeast.
On top of that, New Jersey doesn’t always have a reputation for being the friendliest of the 50 states. But ever since I moved here in my early 20s, I have been pretty delighted with the kind of people I have met. Yes, I have met my share of loudmouthed jerks. And there is no jerk quite out there like a Jersey jerk. Okay, maybe a New York jerk. I guess the good news is, you know exactly where you stand with your neighbors here in Dirty Jerz. There isn’t any of that tinkling-tea-cup fakery of ladies saying, “Why, bless her heart” that our old Southern baby-sitter used to say before launching into a head-to-toe vivisection of her subject’s looks, character and anything else she could think of. When she left our employ, she gave me one of her famous whiplash compliments—“Why, Alexandra,” she said, “I know you’re a good writer. I’ve been enjoying reading your journals all year.” (Disclaimer: I know many awesome Southerners as well).
No, that’s not Jersey style. More likely it’s an in-your-face “Hey, FATSO, NEXT TIME, LAY OFF THE DONUTS.” I am not a big Chris Christie fan (vaccines, anyone?), but even he makes me laugh sometimes. I remember one speech he gave when he promoted a Muslim lawyer to a higher position that really impressed me. In the interests of bipartisanship, may I share a very impressive moment from the governor:
I find a lot of good-heartedness in the people here. I certainly found it yesterday. First of all, I went to my printmaking class, where I worked with lovely, smart women, including a very energetic and skilled teacher, all of whom were helpful to me, one of the few beginners in the class. [More on THAT later!] Second, I met a helpful artist. And third (which I will also discuss later), I met some very kind people who helped me when I ran out of gas!
So, after my printmaking class, I needed to go to a special art store called Jerry’s Artists Supply for some special paper (and maybe a few free-lance items I haven’t told the husband about yet). Of course, I immediately forgot my teacher’s directions, so I drove down some long and winding wintry road. I stopped a friendly-looking woman who was taking a brisk walk in the cold. I asked her for directions to the art store and she said, “I love that store! And I have that book—“ she pointed to a book on birds that I had on the front seat of my car, “in my art classroom. It’s easy to get to Jerry’s, but you just took a wrong turn. To get there you just . . . hmmm.” She thought for a minute. “Why dont I just show you the local way?” l I shoved the nonsense I usually have on my car seat to the floor, she hopped in, and showed me a few twists and turns I would never have found by myself. I admired her bravery for walking in such cold (and for her willingness to hop into a stranger’s car) and we talked about the fun of art. Then, at one corner, I stopped, because before us were about 20 deer, including little ones. They looked at us calmly, and crossed the road in a line. I know—deer are a suburban menace. Rats with hooves. But just then, how beautiful they were, with their black noses and big eyes gazing at us, against the backdrop of snow. We both caught our breath(s?). “It was meant to be,” she laughed. We exchanged information to become Facebook friends when we reached the right corner for her to get out, and her directions the rest of the way were perfect. I don’t know if I’ll hear from her again, but I found myself humming happily all the way to Jerry’s. I love meeting people by chance who COULD be friends. There’s a kind of magic in that potential. I wonder what it is that draws one almost instantly to certain people? It just made me happy that I could meet someone walking down a sftreet who felt like my kind of person. And not only that, someone who was just so gratuitously kind.
In Part 2, I will tell you the story of more gratuitous kindness–thank you, Orlando and Joe!
Writing Prompt: Can you think of a time when someone was surprisingly nice to you?
(Painting: Reclining Lady, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Yesterday, I put a prompt up for July is Journaling Month (for me a “month” starts on the fifth, apparently). My prompt was to describe where you are and your surroundings and how you feel right now. I was very, very, VERY happy to get a quick dispatch from my friend Joan. That is because she was a great friend and a great inspiration to me when we were at boarding school together. I started journaling as a class assignment for English. We had to do some lame exercises like making a feeling wheel with four emotions in it (I never understood the point of that, because do you really have four emotions going on at one time?) and describing a tree changing over the course of a week. Oh. My. god. Next time can we just do a rock instead? I understand that New England has glorious trees that magically change color over time. But it’s not like, “holy Hermes, that oak tree has ¼ more yellow leaves today than it did yesterday.” That was pretty painful. Still, it got me into the habit. What also got me into the habit over the course of my freshman year was Joan, a girl who lived on the same floor as I did in our dorm. We weren’t friends at first—we traveled in different circles (hers higher than mine). But I admired her as a fellow reader and as a journal writer. She was intensely creative and I loved how curious she was, how hungry she was to read and write. And eventually, we began to understand that we were part of the same tribe, and in fact, grew to be best friends. I remember her writing in my journal a famous little poem by Charles Edwin Markham (of course she knew these things)–
“He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in”
When I look back at many of those journals, I see how we would scribble away at our own journals in the morning, pass them to each other at lunch or dinner or whenever we could see each other, and write responses. Her handwriting is liberally represented in my journals and I’m sure mine is in hers. Sometimes our friendship was tempestuous, other times serene, and being her friend changed me for the better. WELLL, the reason I’m writing is because she shared her moment of where she was just at that moment. And with her permission, I hope, because it is a perfect example of an experience of just being and observing. Here is her experience on June 5, 2013, in the afternoon:
“I am lying on my couch, knees bent up, laptop resting against them. The bottom of the computer is warm which is not very pleasant because it is 96 degrees outside and the AC, which struggles to fill this space anyway, is on low. (Or as it would have it, “LO.”) It’s not a comfortable position, either, because the stupid couch that we bought with the intention of having a comfortable place to snuggle while watching movies is too deep, canted oddly, and therefore bends the body lying on it asymmetrically. So yeah, I am deeply annoyed with this couch because it is good for nothing and we never watch movies on it.
The AC fan cycles on and off. Someone is using a leaf blower (It is July, mate!) which is noisy even through the closed windows and the white noise of the compressor. There is a load of laundry in the dryer and every other revolution a zipper clanks against the drum. I am trying not to see that there is way too much stuff in this room – all of it useful – most of it wishing we had a basement or a real attic – or garage! – in which to store it.
I am annoyed with my stuff.
My hip kind of aches from the couch.
I don’t smell anything because I have no sense of smell – but fortunately I am not cooking anything at the moment so I don’t have to jump up (read: slowly, awkwardly, clamber off too-deep couch, over coffee table) and go inspect something on the stove.
Though now I see that it is past 4:30 so I should get started with my dinner plans – otherwise we won’t eat until… Boy, am I a grump. Perhaps this is why I have stopped keeping journals.
That and I don’t know how to punctuate my random thoughts. Maybe I should just limit myself to dashes and full stops.”
Okay, why is that good? Because she doesn’t just write about the couch, she writes about what it means to her (it annoys her, it was supposed be good for snuggling and movies, but it doesn’t really work right for either, it’s too deeply canted—good word–it makes her hips ache, etc.) Is there anybody who hasn’t bought something they wish they hadn’t? Something expensive? And then you have to live with the pain-in-the-neckness of it, at least long enough to retain your dignity? Also, I can understand the annoyance of it just being a little too hot, a lot too loud (I hate leaf blowers, too—and the fact that she has the wit to point out that it is July and what the hell is anyone leafblowing in July shows her personality), and 4:30, which means that she’s going to have to get OFF the couch at sometime and cook something, which is sadly a very common experience—families want to eat and somebody has to make some damn thing. Grumpiness is a highly appropriate response in my opinion. She reported later that she made a virtuous meal of “cleaning out the fridge lasagna,” and said, “So not only is dinner in the oven, but the fridge is under control. And because it will be a mediocre dinner, perhaps my love will take me out for ice cream when the sun goes down…” I have not yet heard if she got the well-deserved ice cream, but even though she’s describing subjective objects, she’s describing them through her experience of them, and her observant personality and her emotions come shining through. You know she is a person who has other people in her life that she loves and cares for, that she knows how to look, to sense, to put meaning to what she describes.
This kind of writing can ground a writer. It’s also a great place to start, because even if you don’t go on, even if you never write another pageyou’ve got something that’s worth having in a journal. It evokes a human moment. And that’s how we live, moment by moment.
Not everyone has such experience at using writing the way Joan does, so today I am going to go to a harder exercise to one that is easier. Especially if you “grounded” yourself yesterday. Today I will challenge you with a list. Sometimes people find this easier, and yet it can also be evocative. Joan said in her journal section/note that “I am annoyed with my stuff.”
Writing Prompt: Write a list about your stuff. Name 25 things you own. Or, if you’re up for it, list 50. Or 100! What do your things say about you?
Please excuse me for taking a gap in posting, but between not having the internet for a long time and giving my computer a spa treatment at the Apple Store in SoHo for a few days has completely discombobulated me. Now I’m wired in once again, thank the heavens, and I can post some things I’ve been meaning to for a long time . . .
One of the things I wanted to talk about is how and why I am a Toastmasters junkie. Recently, , the very charming Ms. S., Vice President of our Toastmasters Club, was in charge of Table Topics at Toastmasters. If I have failed to explain what Toastmasters is, it is a public speaking club. In some ways similar to Alcoholics Anonymous– a support group of people sharing and trying to get better. But instead of sharing our illness, we are, generally speaking a community of mentally healthy people who are trying not just to live, but to flourish by becoming better communicators. I’ve been part of Toastmasters for six years and I have learned how to speak, how to listen, how to frame a two-minute answer to random questions, how to use my hands, how to change my posture to fit the situation, how to behave in a formal group, how to assert myself, and much more. Not only that, I have had the pleasure of seeing many other people make the same journey and I am proud to call them friends. Especially impressive is that many (most!) come from other countries and many of them are making this journey with English as their second language.
Anyway, the Table Topics is a section of the meeting where you can be called upon to answer any question—ANY. And you have two minutes to do it. Old hands say that the best way to do this is by walking slowly and framing your answer so it is like a two minute story with a beginning, middle and end. This may sound very difficult, but honestly, you start to get the hang of it after a while. And, you also learn how to deal with questions when you’re put on the spot. When you honestly can’t give an opinion on something, you can do what politicians do and say something along the lines of, “Well, let’s not talk about MY love life, what we really need to talk about in this country is jobs!” As you can imagine, this can come in mighty handy when you’re in a job interview and someone’s asking you what you thought of your former *$(#)!*)@&%%)* boss. (Not that I feel anything but love for MY former boss, and even HER boss—long story, but true).
Anyway, the theme of the day was millionaires. Shea had to come up with about 25 questions, and many of them (naturally), had to do with what you would do if you won, say, $350 million dollars. I was thinking about that during the meeting and I thought about it later, too. Here’s what I would do, and I’d love to know what other people would do, too. In fact, maybe if you all have some great ideas, I’d put it into another post.
- I’d pay for the college education of all my friends and family’s kids. Go for broke, kids! This includes private schools and grad school.
- I’d pay for the further education of my friends and family so they can learn whatever would bring them joy. And cover all their expenses while they’re doing it. Our friend Heather is going to Oxford to study Women’s History this year and get her master’s degree. I’m so proud of her!
- Go on a monster vacation all over the world for a LONNNNNNNG time.
- Send son number 2 on a giant trip on Outward Bound—they have ones that are three months or more.
- Do something similar for son number 1, but not on Outward Bound, and not to Japan, because he hates fish.
- Buy my husband the best bike ever, and the chance to go on some super rides in other countries.
- Buy an apartment in the Murray Hill section of NYC.
- Get a personal assistant (as in Kevin, the character played by the exciting new comedian and best childhood friend of Son #1, Ramy Youssef in the new Nickelodeon show See Dad Run (http://ramyyoussef.com/. )Heck, I’d hire Ramy but he’s a little busy right now!
- Get cleaning ladies in EVERY day.
10. Cleaning ladies for ALL of my nearest and dearest!
11. Buy my sister her dream house.
12. Take my mom on more trips because she’s really fun.
13. Go traveling with my best friend Julie, like Thelma and Louise without the rapy/suicidy stuff.
14. Spend a lot of time reconnecting with friends in California.
15. See my friend Maggie in England and go touring around with her.
16. Do the Eat Pray Love thing but mainly just the Eat. If you can’t learn it in Italy, what’s the point?
17. Hire someone to make me an awesome website
18. Find some people I miss.
19. Find a few people I hurt and apologize to them.
20. Recover my health and help other people I know who are hurting get the best doctors and care as well.
21. Toastmasters Road Trip!
22. Hire a limo to bring my mother to visit me more often.
23. Hire more people to teach me stuff
24. Get an MFA in writing.
25. Learn more about drawing/painting/etc.
26. Sail on a long, long windjammer trip with my husband.
27. Visit all of my aunts and uncles and tell them I love them.
28. Go see my friend Evelyn in Arizona and do all kinds of fun Arizona things with her.
29. Go to Seattle and visit my friend Joyce and get some acupuncture, wisdom, and tea from her.
30. Fix up the house any way my husband likes without getting that cringy overwhelmed feeling
31. Get a country house (which he wants) that isn’t too far from a place that has foreign movies and has a nice community of people who will like us and not just think we’re interlopers.
32. Secretly buy things that I know people need and just put them in their garages so they find them.
33. Send Julie to an MFA program that she would love.
34. Get someone to publicize my work, help me edit, keep track of where mss. Are sent, etc. And get my novel polished and finished!
35. Buy my sister her own personal California Pizza Kitchen.
36. Send Son 1 to chef school, just for fun. Maybe the Culinary Institute of America up along the Hudson.
Oh geez, I really didn’t think this was going to be all about me. I’ll wait till the next post to say what I would do for the world with all the rest of my $350 million.
Writing Spark: What would you do for YOURSELF with your mega-lotto winnings?