Fifty-Two Paragraphs

Sometimes, pretending to be an amateur photographer helps me be creative.

In choosing a photo to submit for this week’s Fifty-Two Frames, I asked my husband about a cheeky idea I had.

“I think you’re a writer, not a photographer.”

In other words, I seem to enjoy playing with the captions more than handling the photographs. Really, I’m photojournaling.

“Start a Fifty-Two Paragraphs. That’s who you are.”

Intriguing, and then I went off to class, where tonight I was one of the writers to be critiqued on a submitted piece. That exercise may have finally knocked me over the head.

I’m not being the writer I am today.

Ten-year-old me is being the writer I am today.

I’m twenty years late to my own party.

When I was a kid, I had a fear of writing things down because I knew they’d never be as perfect as they were in my head. I ended up focusing on poetry and journal writing. It was easy to perfect poetry, and it was easy to let journal writing be imperfect.

Now I’m an adult, and I’m still journal writing. I’m trying to write fiction, to tell the stories I have inside, and all I’m doing is tugging at a grain of whatever it was I had back then.

It’s not working.

At least I’m learning.

So… Fifty-Two Paragraphs?

Wherein I flip the details.

Enjoyed today’s ‘Writing Gym,’ especially the last exercise we did. As a group, we collaborated on a few details for a character, and then each wrote a scene involving her. The details were: 

  • A woman in her 50s, named Dorothy, single
  • From Omaha, Nebraska, currently in London, UK
  • Some connection to being a born again Christian
  • Yoga teacher
  • The scene: her flat, 5am, autumn
  • By the end, she receives a call from home or has to take a flight the next day

Dorothy took another sip of her vodka, looked past the unpacked boxes and padded toward the small window of her London flat. The street was on life support, barely moving, barely breathing, at 5am. A time of day when nobody is even awake to judge about a jetlagged, 5am vodka. A rare magical moment in Londontown for someone who had traveled all the way here from the cool, calm Nebraska life.

Except her life hadn’t been cool or calm back then. Back when she was Daniel, an accountant, an animal trapped in an anatomical prison for the first 45 years of his life.

No, being transgender woman in Omaha was not an easygoing lifestyle.

But Dorothy smiled as she considered the rare bits of fun she had had in the sex-change process. Daniel to Dorothy; she had wanted the most iconic, middle-American name possible. Sweet, innocent Dorothy, the girl who had lost her house, her hometown, her way.

The yellow brick road had led this Dorothy to London just days ago. She wanted to be in the most international city outside the U.S. She wanted her anonymity to be guaranteed, like the stamp in her fresh passport. After training as a yoga teacher in New York City for a couple years while undergoing treatments and preparing for the surgeries, she was ready to start completely new, where she’d have an accent, anonymity, a new chance. A chance to stop pretending she was a satisfied Born Again accountant for an IT company in Omaha. A chance to put on make up during daylight, to let herself be as feminine as she felt, to be the person she was born to be. Genitalia mix-up aside.

Dorothy walked back to the kitchenette and reviewed her schedule for later that day – two interviews at nearby gyms and one at a community center. She had made the arrangements from New York, and she couldn’t help but assume that her 212 location and Middle America accent had helped secure the interviews from the curious employers.

She noticed her mobile phone in the corner and the blinking light that indicated a new voicemail message.

Dorothy obliged the voice and pressed 1 for new messages, and felt her eyebrows raise as the source of the message was from an American number.

Hello, Dorothy Evans, this is Dr. Richard Corey from Metropolitan Medical Center. This is quite out of the blue, but due to an administrative error, we have just recovered your file from earlier this year and must speak with you immediately… I’m sure you recall the last-minute prostate biopsy we ordered after your series of operations. Unfortunately, the results had actually been switched and we must discuss the implications of what was actually found. Please return my call after 8am.

Maurice Sendak teaches Stephen Colbert how to write a children’s book.

Oddly, I’m writing about Maurice Sendak twice in one month. But dude deserves it.

I guess he’s having his Betty White moment. Whatever the case, I’ll take any gem or pearl this wild thing has to offer.

Please allow yourself both parts of Sendak’s recent appearance on the Colbert Report, where genius of another type Stephen Colbert provides a great match to Sendak’s deadpan spin on life and writing…

Part 1

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Part 2

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 2
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Where Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things Are.

Loved this interview with Maurice Sendak, author/illustrator galore. Dude’s got attitude, like little Max.

“Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive… and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die, OR, that blow to the head was so inspiring you come back up and do the greatest work you ever did. BUT you have to take the dive.”

Best line:

“People say, why didn’t you do Wild Things II? Wild Things I was such a success… Go to hell. Go to hell. I’m not a whore. I don’t do those things.”

You got it, Maurice.

H/t Ahoova

The fish, the shark and Passover.

When Gilad Shalit was 11, he wrote a short story called “When the Shark and the Fish First Met.” Though it seems this was originally published and spread around in 2008, I only came across it now via Facebook shares.

It resonates with me because I did a lot of short story writing when I was a kid… from the time I could draw doodles, to when I could write my alphabet, and then string sentences together, and then to the time I could consider word choice and sophisticate the effort.

His story is a good thought to keep in mind as we go into Pesach (Passover) this year, over five years since Gilad Shalit’s capture by Hamas. The story breaks my heart because it contains the same simple message in such a complex scenario, which so many of us familiar with conflict wrote, drew and dreamed as kids.

And here we are as adults, and the stories haven’t come true. Not many know that better than Gilad Shalit, than the Fogel survivors from Itamar.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to them.

So, amidst the pain and violence of the Passover story, let’s keep in mind all the story dreams our children will have. Maybe, next year, they’ll come true.

When the Shark and the Fish First Met

(by 11-year-old Gilad Shalit)

A small and gentle fish was swimming in the middle of a peaceful ocean.  All of a sudden, the fish saw a shark that wanted to devour him.
He then began to swim very quickly, but so did the shark.

Suddenly the fish stopped and called to the shark:
“Why do you want to devour me? We can play together!”

The shark thought and thought and said:
“Okay- fine: Let’s play hide and seek.”

The shark and fish played all day long, until the sun went down.
In the evening, the shark returned to his home.

His mother asked:
“How was your day, my dear shark?  How many animals did you devour today?”

The shark answered:  “Today I didn’t devour any animals, but I played with an animal called FISH”.

“That fish is an animal we eat.  Don’t play with it!” said the shark’s mother.

At the home of the fish, the same thing happened.  “How are you, little fish?  How was it today in the sea?” asked the fish’s mother.

The fish answered: “Today I played with an animal called SHARK.”

“That shark is the animal that devoured your father and your brother. Don’t play with that animal,” answered the mother.

The next day in the middle of the ocean, neither the shark nor the fish were there.

They didn’t meet for many days, weeks and even months.

Then, one day they met.  Each one immediately ran back to his mother and once again they didn’t meet for days, weeks and months.

After a whole year passed, the shark went out for a nice swim and so did the fish. For a third time, they met and then the shark said: “You are my enemy, but maybe we can make peace?”
The little fish said:  “Okay.”

They played secretly for days, weeks and months, until one day the shark and fish went to the fish’s mother and spoke together with her. Then they did the same thing with the shark’s mother; and from that same day the sharks and the fish live in peace.



That’s a lot of Keret.

Have I mentioned that I totally dig Etgar Keret?

In college I took a creative writing class that focused on ‘short short stories.’ Like, really short. Micro short. Blogger short.

Ever since reading The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God I realized that this guy was doing what I wanted to be doing with short stories. And so, I started following him. And everything he’s written…

…in English. Until last week. I had it on my to-do list to grab a copy of צנורות, Keret’s first published collection of shorts, in Hebrew. I’ve only read the translated stuff and I thought if anything, his stuff will be a breeze to read in Hebrew.

Last week I stopped by צומת ספרים (yes, there is another popular Israeli bookstore chain aside from Steimatsky!). The store was having a ‘buy 1 get 2′ sale. I knew Keret’s new book came out recently but I also knew there was no way it would be part of the sale. What I found out shortly after knowing all that other stuff was: three of his older collections were… so I brought a copy of each up to the cashier.

She looked up at me and exclaimed, “Oh, isn’t he just amazing?! Have you read his new one yet?” I told her I’ve actually only read the others in English, so now I’m going to try them in Hebrew. She gave me props and told me the new one was also on sale, 30 shekel, how could a diehard not pick that up?

So I did. Four-books-for-the-price-of-two later and I’m steeped in Etgar Keret short storyness for a while.

By the way, I was right. His stuff is a breeze to read in Hebrew. So if you’re an oleh wondering where to start with that, Keret is a grand place. And I highly recommend צנורות.

Pediatric memory.

This is what I completed from the Memoir Writing class I not-so-recently finished. I’m not sure if it’s complete yet.

The pleather cushioning of the examination counter-tops in the patient rooms still call to me as an inviting yet risky place for a sick kid to sit. Carrying my infant son from the reception area towards ‘Room 2′ makes me realize the cast in this medical office hasn’t changed in 20 years. The patients are still either awkward teenagers or snotty toddlers. The nurses are still squealing over some red, wrinkled newborn. The doctor is still running late, and most definitely won’t be sorry about it.

I set S down on Room 2′s green version of the pleather counters and take in the mock-kid-friendly décor. As S polishes the counter top with drool and coughs up a demonstration of why he was brought here, I attempt to osmosis a mental warning to his seven-month-old mind.

Two decades ago, my two brothers and I endured these doctor visits as a group, lead by our mother. The three of us, cub-like, would squirm in the cramped patient room while waiting for our common foe. Together we were a recipe for a rumble, but we (mostly) heeded my mother’s warnings not to fight, lest the doctor walk in and see it. Collectively, we knew that equaled a bad start and little-to-no hope for surviving the checkup intact.

The cartoons on the walls gave us a little courage. They were stupid, and we knew we were better than they were. In the hierarchy of pediatrics, the doctor was at the top and the cartoon wallpaper was at the bottom. We were somewhere in between the height chart and the rainbow band aids.

My mother would make jokes to calm us in between scolding us for climbing up the cabinets. Just as we would start to laugh, we’d hear the thickly Boston-accented pediatrician barking down the hall and she’d shh us while controlling the smile breaking through her lips.

Waiting for the pediatrician, I notice the smell of band aids and tissues make a sterile contrast with the cartoon wallpaper. S is still perched on top of the counter cushion, held up with the light support of my hand on his back. Through the open door of our room, he’s flirting with a 14-year-old girl across the hall. She smiles at him, he smiles back. She coos, he squeals. More smiling and their conversation is a nervous patient flirtation.

I can still taste the intimidation like a wooden ‘aaah’ stick – raw, dry, with the fear of splinters. I stand next to S, mama now, and wonder what kind of mother I’ll shortly be in the face of terrible bedside manner. In my mind, the unsmiling, impatient pediatrician of my youth doesn’t wait for new mothers to make up their minds.

My mother watched closely from behind the doctor’s hunched shoulders as we were poked and prodded. This, while we were forced to answer inane questions in a mumbled jargon that as kids we had to learn to comprehend. It was that or ridicule. Somehow, my mother kept the pack dignified and kept us safe with her own bullish remarks or maternal brand of protective sarcasm. She’d crack a few sharp-witted retorts and we’d watch as sometimes – sometimes – the ice-cold doctor from Boston would betray a microscopic upturned lip.

There were other times when she’d manage to prove her industry intelligence and score an outright conversation in the patient room while we strained not to hear the crickets in between the lines. Sometimes, her coolness would actually match the doctor’s. It was a transformation that made me shudder inside.

The finish line was piling into the doctor’s fish-tanked office for the check-up ‘review,’ which actually meant listening to him and my mother spar about the latest kid-disease news. Contented not to be a part of it, we knew our tongues/ears/self-esteem were safe; we relaxed and enjoyed the fish. At the end of it, my mother herded us out of the office with our vaccine charts and dignities intact.

S is smiling bouncily and the pediatrician walks in. The childhood stuff stays with me as I pin my baby down at the doctor’s request, robotically listing symptoms. Doc is fairly quiet. Does my projected calmness disarm him? S lets out a yelp and my childhood pediatrician soothes him. He makes a remark about his lady-killer eyes. He adds that whatever is making S cough is viral and will clear up in a few days. I hold my face still.

He tells me to join him in his office after I finish dressing S. I take my son to the fish-tanked office, assuming there’s nothing much to ‘review’ since I don’t have much to say about the latest news in childhood diseases. Maybe it’s because I’m young, maybe because he heard what I do for a living, but my pediatrician gets to talking about YouTube and his latest internet venture.

“See, I’ve set up this entire directory of videos, interviewing medical professionals, built it from scratch – doctors talking to doctors. And this damn video start up is giving me hell getting it licensed out to them. Obviously they’re offering way below what this stuff is worth.”

I nod in faux earnest. “Yeah, you’re most probably getting ripped off for your premium content.”

“I mean, you search for this stuff on Google, and what, they think I don’t know about SEO? That I could easily post it on YouTube and call it a day? This stuff is pure value…”

I nod politely as he lectures me on topics that are my career; I don’t bother interjecting when he makes incorrect assumptions. His rant is a token of trust. A recognition. I hold on to it like some delicate trinket, something paper-thin.

And anyway, his ego is too big for me to break alone. If my brothers were here, we could have teamed up.