Month: March 2015

Echo of the Ephemeral

There’s a wonderful scene in a Chevy Chase movie where a family has just completed a journey across America to see the Grand Canyon. Having finally arrived, the family gets out of the station wagon, walks to the edge of the abyss and, with their arms around each other, they collectively heave a great, appreciative sigh, then shrug their shoulders and get back into the car to go home. The moment is great comedy because who can’t relate? When something is too overwhelming for words—too intangible, out of reach—even when it is right there in front of us, there is no way to capture it; no amount of drinking it in that can solidify the experience or make it more real. You just can’t eat it. There it is. Time to get back in the car.

There are some images that can just not be described with words alone—the giant gumdrop of a California sunset as it melts into the Pacific Ocean; the smell of Georgia pines after a rain storm; the life and energy of Times Square after the theaters let out; wisps of hair on your shoulder on the first warm day of the year. In trying to describe the ineffable, one relies upon the reader’s own history to fill in the blanks.

Likewise, there are experiences that are so utterly subjective that one can never truly share their worth. And there is always the difficulty of a culture-gap. Manhattan is a concept which is so totally alien to my relatives in rural Texas that, after feebly suggesting various stretches of their imaginations, I often end my explanations with the tired phrase, “You’d have to be there to understand…” I have the same problem explaining the beauty of listening to country music while driving all night down an old, dusty, two lane highway to folks from New York City …They just can’t get it. There’s no point of reference, and the experience is too elusive to capture with mere language.

What I’d most like to capture and be able to recreate in a way that would resonate for the universal reader is the sensation of a Southern thunderstorm. In attempting to define such an experience, words can only wrap their way around the invisible forces of nature—outlining in the sketchiest, loosest way what is transient and filled with power. Words can describe the warm, salty taste of a gulf breeze, but they cannot convey the electric thrill that every Texan knows when that breeze begins to cartwheel across the shore, damp and full of potential and warning. I can tell you in words of the clouds—rich, blue and gold—slowly gathering into larger, heavier and deeper blue-black and silver groups, crowding each other into cauliflower bunches across the steel-gray sky, rumbling and growling with intensity and a promise of force. But I cannot make you feel the spark of fire that catches when the first flashes of lightning explode inside the clouds and illuminate their edges. I can’t truly capture the sound of those first heavy drops of rain as they land on the windshield of a van or the rhythmic hissing as the wind blows the downpour across the roof. I mean, I can tell you, but if you have no shared context, the images may not come to life for you—no matter how true-to-life.

I can tell you what it’s like to be drenched to the bone, but I cannot reproduce the sensation of wet feet inside of wet shoes, or the smell—warm and weedy. For me, the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of a Texas thunderstorm are co-mingled things, inseparable, incapable of true translation. The oil in the Gulf of Mexico lends the air a thick brownness, salty and flavorful. The wind carries silvery currents back and forth across the road. There are times when it is impossible to see anything beyond the beating streams of water on the windshield. Traffic stops. Gutters overflow into the streets and barefoot children scream at the thunderclaps and run to catch crawdads in the overflowing ditches.

The storms can last from a few seconds to a day or more. When they leave, the air is crisp; the ground is littered in pine needles and leaves. The flood waters run off into the bayous and rivers, and the birds come out of hiding to celebrate the sunshine.

Inside homes, people turn from the Weather Channel back to their soaps and realty shows. The watches and warnings have moved on to another part of the county and life—for a while filled with danger and noise—returns to routine. One neighbor might call another to ask if any trees were downed in the storm or to share the story about the thunderclap that like to give her a dadblaned heart attack.

A Texas thunderstorm is a miracle that for me, as a writer, remains elusive and breezy. Unless one already has a point of reference—a similar memory of salt and wind and sound—there is no way to convey it with mere words. It is a living thing, vibrant, explosive, willful and majestic. It can be tasted. But no matter how hard you try, you just can’t eat it.

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Dysfunctional Dining

Our family has eaten dinner in front of the television set for the past two years. Strangely, we are all comforted by that, and to propose that we do otherwise would cause a major upheaval in our house. Aside from the 45 minutes to an hour or so that we spend together watching a show and eating, each of the four of us pretty much revolve in our own little universe, behind closed doors.

My 9 year-old daughter is working her way through the entire Harry Potter series and is addicted to educational computer games, Disney preteen sitcoms where everybody is sarcastic and rude to each other, and collecting Pokemon on her DS.  My 13 year-old son received a space-ship-like computer for his birthday last year (not from us—from a way-too-generous family friend), and we have hardly seen him since. My husband spends his days and nights doing temp work from his computer in what used to be the formal living room/music room but has now become his office. I spend most of my life on the third floor, in my attic office, writing, reading or playing with my mini-recording studio. Okay, I smoke up here, too. Shut up.

My husband and I take turns cooking dinner (lately, my daughter has been helping out in the cooking department, as well, having received several kids’ cookbooks for her birthday last year). When dinner is almost ready, we scream upstairs for the family to come down, and we set placemats on the coffee table and two TV trays placed in front of the easy chairs bookending the sofa. We scream a few more times until everyone is finally in one place, then we serve the food and commence to argue about what to watch. Sometimes, this argument lasts until we have all finished eating, and we clear the plates and send the kids back upstairs to wash, brush their teeth, or finish their homework.

We frequently binge-watch an entire series over a month or two. I was introduced to and followed the saga of the various Dr. Who’s throughout the entirety of last year before we moved on to Sherlock. When we watch movies, it often takes us a week or so to get through them, bite by bite. On the weekends, we will watch a film straight through, but during the week, we’re bound by school schedules and bedtime routines, so continuity is compromised.

Speaking during a program is discouraged, but my kids and husband are incapable of not speaking for more than a few minutes at a time, so we always have the mute button close at hand, so as not to miss any dialogue. Sometimes we have to rewind and watch a scene several times because of random interruptions by one or more of the four of us. When this happens, we scowl at one another and sigh loudly.  Dinner conversation is limited to what we can fit in during commercials or pauses.

I am aware that this sounds sad and dysfunctional. But it is what comforts us.

There was a time when we indulged in sit-down meals at the table, like the Waltons. When the kids were little, we’d snap them into their booster chairs, cut their food, dab the sides of each little messy mouth with a napkin and giggle over the cute things they did and said.  They loved our company then and even had fun teasing and playing with each other. I felt a swell of pride every time I put steaming platters of freshly cooked vegetables and meatloaf or home-cooked gumbo on the table in front of my family. This was me being a mom—a real mom. It was a role I embraced with the pleasure of a child playing dress up. My mother had never cooked (she wasn’t allowed–it was the 60’s). Sit-down meals were TV dinners in foil packages with peel-back tops. TV trays were metal things that pinched your fingers when you put them in the corner.

None of that nonsense for my family. Look how far I’ve come, I’d think, on my own, without anyone showing me how. My family is sitting at a table eating food I cooked for them.

We have a formal dining room with a massive Oak, claw-footed table which we pile with mail, backpacks, books, packages, and other debris. Twice a year—at Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Day eve, we scrape the table’s contents into cardboard boxes, clean the oak with a sponge and a dry rag, then adorn it with one of two thrift-shop lace tablecloths, a centerpiece candle, and mostly matching, shiny flatware. We dig out the mismatched gravy boats, salt and pepper shakers, and as many unchipped China plates as we can find in our kitchen cabinets, and we sit down over a turkey or ham dinner, like civilized people.  The kids hate this and are antsy and uncomfortable with no safe place to put their elbows and nothing civil to say to one another.

We have a long pine farm table in the kitchen, and this is where we eat together on the rare occasions the cable is out or we have a sleepover guest. The kids eat breakfast at this table when they make it down in time and aren’t about to miss the bus. On weekends, this is where we eat soup or drink hot chocolate with marshmallows after coming inside and kicking off our snow boots.

The rest of the time, the table is empty.

Subliminal Daughter

My 9 year-old daughter informed me yesterday that she had found a way to lose weight while sitting at her pink laptop all day. It seems she’d ventured into a virtual field of subaural noise – subliminal suggestion sites that promise to give listeners confidence, take away those winter pounds, boost their GPA, make them beautiful, funny, love-objects who need never lift their little fingers from the keyboard to achieve self-perfection.

Or, in her words, “They’ve found a way to affect your brain with sound hidden under the music. It’s SUB-AURAL, Mom. It’s a product of the new generation. You wouldn’t understand it.” (Eye-roll at goofy, techno-challenged Mommy)

Uneasy, I suggested perhaps she might want to use a bit of caution before subjecting her developing brain to the mind-trickery of random Web peepers. (Okay, my exact words were something like, “That’s ridiculous! The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise something besides your fingers and thumbs. And besides, who knows what kinds of creepers create those things? They might have programmed some brainwashing mantra of depravity into those sites. And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that subaural noise is bad for your central nervous system.”)

To which she replied (another eye-roll), “Mom. That was only a handful of kids in Japan that committed suicide or got migraines after listening to a Pokemon theme which has long-ago been removed from the Internet. Those aren’t allowed online anymore. I happen to know it’s a FACT that listening to these makes you lose weight because I read it in the comments.”

(Me: head cocked, brows furrowed mouth open, but nothing is coming out.)

Did I mention she’s 9?

As so often happens these days, I stood there in stare-down mode for a few seconds before deciding this battle wasn’t worth the energy. I sighed, shrugged and proceeded to pick up the dirty socks all over the floor of her room, mumbling something under my breath (subaural) about “…your brain…your life..blah blah blah…if it were ME, blah blah blah, thought you were SMARTER than that…blah blah blah… ”

The truth is, I do tend to be anxious about things, exceptionally wary–especially the Internet. (That’s the subject for another full essay, I’m thinking — How I Turned my Daughter into Howard Hughes.) The other truth is I’m exhausted. And the computer keeps her occupied and entertained during this climate change odyssey that has turned Western Jersey into Siberia for the past 6 months.  I figure sunshine, real friends and physical activity will come soon enough, with spring. Her brain is still plastic enough that we can undo any temporary damage then.

Then I leave her there, happily pointing and clicking, oblivious to the extra 25 pounds she’s put on since September, unconcerned about the metabolic syndrome that threatens to harden her little arteries and land her in sugar-free diabetes Hell by the time she’s 10. It’s Sunday. Things need to be cleaned, organized, written, read. I do all the things her tuning out allows me to do, riding on the steady, familiar magic carpet of mom-guilt, silently shaming myself for negligence and a childhood whizzing by like virtual time. I check in on her every hour or so. She hasn’t moved. She’s still listening to it while chasing zombies or battling animated wizards. She wiggles in her molded plastic swivel chair, and I ask her if she needs to pee. She shushes me. I’m interrupting her game. I tell her five more minutes, then she has to do something in the “real” world. I invite her to play a game of backgammon or make a craft. She doesn’t respond. She’s concentrating on the wizards, listening/not listening to the thinning, confidence-building messages.

I place the folded laundry into her dresser drawers and close her bedroom door on my way out.

Why I Write

Why do I Write?

I write to isolate the moment, to buy time to examine movement from every perspective by slowing or freezing it into language; to make concrete what is ephemeral; to temporarily pin down a butterfly’s wing so as to examine its beauty and symmetry; to see what has passed me by in the rush of time; to capture essence and meaning from fleeting instances.

I write to make something more real, solid – to give definition to what is formless. I write to ponder my own experience and that of the others around me – to hold and know what is ghost-like and gone already; to touch some part of you in a place that resonates with some part of me; to query the connection, feel about for threads that make up the fabric of you, I, they, we, and to affirm that we are all bits of this incredibly complicated and breathtakingly, achingly beautiful tapestry – that we are, in fact, co-weaving this ever-evolving, silky, shifting, slippery work.

I write to affirm my existence within the patchwork of life and to collect the pieces and arrange them into colorful comforts. I write because I am a collector, and I use words to collect bits of life to put upon display, like buttons, photos, books, records, movies, old campers in the yard. I make word-things out of non-thing stuff. I write to give substance and make ideas, experiences, history, memories tangible.

I write to rewrite – to fix, smooth, soften, buff, shine, spit-polish the past. I write in tantrum and in ecstasy. I write in solitude, but the act makes me feel not alone. I write in the hope that someone will read and connect, but I have no one in particular in mind and cannot imagine why anyone would take an interest in what I have to say. Still, the hope is there and thick in every word. I write to a Great Nobody. And I write with a trust that my words will find an audience in somebody, even if I never free them from the blinking screen or digital file. Even if that Great Nobody turns out to be me.

E.S.S.A.Y.S on a Mad, Mad World

Each of us holds her own piece of truth and goodness inside. Every human is equally capable of doing good. Even terrorists first emerged from the darkness of a womb into the light and were embraced in warmth, swaddled and nurtured, cooed at, kissed. Every child is loved or nurtured by someone, in the beginning.

So how can a human get so lost? Sin is not inborn; it is acquired, developed, refined over time. Scratch the surface of any hater, and you will find vulnerability borne by love somewhere underneath. Salvation of the world, of the sinners, cannot be achieved by doing battle with evil. Sunlight is the only thing that can overcome darkness. Souls are not won like chess pieces. Strategy isn’t enough on the battlefield of ideology. Struggles against anything can only lead to more struggles. Strategy is useless when it comes to the spirit. Spiritual change can only occur willingly—this is the only freedom we all have.

So how do we influence the collective will of a would-be “nation” of evil-doers? Seems the whack-a-mole game isn’t working. Senseless killing will always spawn more of the same. Spending the borrowed wealth of whole continents to bomb, shoot, smash and annihilate an ideology can only assure more of the same, and more of the same, again and again until there is nothing left of our planet to save, and the evil turns in on itself to feast and spit. Sigmund Freud (I think) said a sign of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result. Seems the world has gone mad. So the question we need to ask is, “Why?”

A thought or two. An idea that isn’t fully flushed out, obviously, but perhaps it might be, over time. A simple solution?—no. A long-term process, certainly. A bit too little too late, perhaps. Almost certainly. Anyway, here are my ideas, in their simple, un-flushed out form, scribbled in frustration.

Yes, we need to stop this madness; the beheadings; the kidnappings and enslavement. Young men and women from all over the world – here, too — are signing up, pledging their allegiance to malevolence.  You can’t fight evil, truly we must have learned that by now. You can only shine light on the darkness; expose the filth; show those in the darkness the truth.

Seeing the evil for what it really is, exposed to the light of reason, those stumbling about inside of the shadows will choose to see and embrace the light. Such is the wisdom of all religious traditions and philosophies. Salvation cannot be mandated; it must be chosen. Show the world what goodness and truth look like; educate the darkness out of the lost; remind the child about the innocence of the nurtured baby; remind the teen about the fun-loving child; remind the adult that he once knew joy and had hope. Stop the endless cycle of violence by turning things around, bottom up. Save the children before they lose faith. Spend the billions on schoolbooks, instructors, desks, uniforms, safe spaces for children to learn and grow. Stop the cancerous madness before it grows. Slice it out of the body of mankind with the sharp scalpel of knowledge. Share the past with the children. Show them the futility of war. Sing a different song—a harmonious one, where the dissonant solos of the world become choruses of glorious sound. Sing a song of love and unity, of praise for every man’s faith (for faith in anything is a reason for hope). Shut out the spreading web of evil by offering a web of community, stability, love. Save the world by saving the children, everywhere. Spend the money to infiltrate the sticky web where young minds lie trapped, cocooned awaiting doom of every sort. Slice the threads. Squash the spider of hate. Smother the children with kindness, nurturing, love, and hope. See, the information is important and good, but it is only the hope that will lift them out of the pit of darkness. Shine the light of hope; sing the song of unity; stop the cycle of madness; sell the idealists on a better ideal; share the wisdom of critical self-reflection, and be willing to burden some of the blame. Shame those who do wrong in the name of any god. Sorrow for those who have perished at the hands of any killer—theirs, ours, or a false ideology. See that we are all one, sharing this simple ball of blue and green, spinning through space, circling the same sun, singing to the same moon, touched by the very breeze that brushed the cheek of our enemy yesterday or the day or year before. Sigh in sadness for us and for those who share the very air we breathe. Send the air that has resided inside of your chest out into the current between us to travel past boundaries, borders, no-fly zones and battle lines to be drawn in identical sigh into the heart and lungs of the killer who was once a boy learning to tie his shoe; whose mother will mourn with as much sorrow for her loss as our mothers have mourned and will mourn their children fallen; the boy who lost his way; who might have been saved, taught, encouraged to hope. Search for a better way. See that the old ways are no longer working. Space is interesting, but what we really need to explore right now is here—on Earth, so spend everything to save us, here, now. See that we understand them, and they understand us. Serve goodness by doing better. Seek out common ground, and start from there. Speak of hope and understanding; speak of a loving God who does not promote hatred and violence; speak of universal truth—of love and mutual need; of service to one another. Share food. Share wisdom. Share hope. Stop the machetes and silence the guns with music, harmony, words. Sounds so simple. Sounds so right. Seriously, though, one way or another, these crazy, sicko extremist MFs have to go.

Blue Guide to Paradise

Tammy’s Blue Guide to Glen Gardner, New Jersey

Landscape

Nestled between two mountains beside the Spruce Run stream, the borough of Glen Gardner, New Jersey is situated only an hour and 15 minutes West and North of the bustling New York City. A verdant hamlet of tranquil antiquity, the community is bisected by Highway 31, the only major North to South trucking highway running through Hunterdon and Warren Counties West of Interstate 78. Residents and visitors alike experience the ironic juxtaposition of the sounds of nature and diesel-powered engines roaring their way to and fro past babbling brooks, scenic covered bridges and 200 year-old bank-repossessed farmhouses threatening to buckle in upon themselves with every road-rattle.

History

Once known as “Sodom,” the town, first inhabited by the Lenape Indians, had also been called Eveland and Clarksville until it was officially renamed in 1870, after the five Gardner brothers, New York City transplants who moved to the area in 1863 and built their picture frame and chair manufacturing factory and homes at the crossroads of a rather notorious inn built in 1770 (still in existence – see the Glen Gardner Inn) and a rowdy village of rock quarry workers who had offended a traveling evangelist with their sinful and querulous ways. All but one of the brothers (who established the General Store, still in existence and currently run by a crazy woman who steals pies at farm stands and sells them) eventually moved away from the borough, and their manufacturing business burned down. As unemployed workers moved away, what had been a self-contained downtown became a shantytown until the post 9-11 real estate boom in the early 21st Century (people wanted to live close to, but not IN, NYC) revived the local housing economy, and an affluent bedroom community was born alongside 31. When the bubble burst a few years later, many of the newly upside-down painted Victorians and Colonials on Main Street and nearby (including the sprawling, slightly haunted abode of the author of this book), were abandoned as their owners tried in vain to renegotiate with their lenders, and finally, in fear of humiliation or homelessness, they moved to higher ground (high rise rentals in New York City) to wait out the process. Ironically, it turned out the banks didn’t want any of these homes alongside 31, so one by one, two by two, and family by family, the city refugees began to return, replacing the stolen copper pipes, restoring roofs, and installing woodstoves for heat while they waited out what common sense told them would be inevitable. Because none of the residents are certain their houses are actually theirs or that their investment into the properties will yield anything down the road but potential misery, the once-bright facades along Main Street now have a gray, weathered look of desperation to them, and passers by will have to excuse the suspicious glances and blatant lack of hospitalilty. Anyone exiting 31 onto Sanitorium Road or School Street to pass through this once abandoned and newly re-inhabited hamlet must be a spy from the bank, looking to see if there is anything worth fighting for…

Culture

(See Clinton, New Jersey)

Entertainment

(See Clinton, Washington, and Flemington, New Jersey and Easton, PA.)

Law Enforcement

N/A…if you need the police, try calling Washington or the NJ State troopers. Good luck with that. If worse comes to worse, knock on old Frank, Sr.’s door on Hampton Road. He can call his nephew two blocks over with the pit bulls. Also, he has a chain saw. For what it’s worth.

Government

(See Blue Guides: 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012….nothing’s changed.)