Sunday, May 29, 2011
I don't know how frequently your thoughts pitter-patter beneath your cranium, but mine sometime rat-a-tat-tat for hours. On bad days, I'm at their mercy, brought to my knees by their morose battering.
"Pay no attention to them," Donna, my meditation teacher, says. "They're just sparks of electrical energy." But I find electric sparks difficult to ignore. They so often mimic my mother's voice, silent now two decades but still alive in my head. "You're too generous." "You should try harder." "Are you going to wear THAT?"
So when I spotted Sandra Ingerman's book, How to Heal Toxic Thoughts: Simple Tools for Personal Transformation (Sterling, 2007), I grabbed it. "This one's for me," I thought.
But it wasn't.
"Start by just breathing deeply into your abdomen," Ingerman writes. But I've been belly breathing for years. For a while in the Sixties, I even taught slow, deep inhalations in Yoga classes. I still breathe deeply. It takes the edge off my anxiety, I'll say that for it, but my thoughts go swaggering on.
Ingerman pitches meditation, too. Again, I agreed, nothing beats meditation for dropping clear down deep into the blank space that precedes thought, but some days the electrical energy goose-steps so briskly I can't find my way there.
So, disappointed, still needing a way to deflate the constant rapping of my mind, I set the book aside.
Meanwhile, out of unrelated curiosity, I paged through Shira Boss's Green with Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness (Warner, 2006). Her examples were funny. The U.S. congressman who wants everyone to think he's arrived, but sleeps on a cot in his office. The 50-year-old baby boomer with kids in college, no retirement fund, and the clock ticking. And Boss's own jealousy at the "couple next door" who paid cash for their condo and go on shopping sprees. How can they afford it?
Green with Envy had a nice gossipy quality; I raced right through it. However, Boss's conclusion surprised me. All of a sudden, hoping to avoid her preoccupation with money, she's training to run a marathon. In doing so, she learned to train her mind. The phrase Boss used to train her mind, "But it doesn't matter," sounded purely American, not like the Hindu mantras I know. But she used the phrase like a mantra: at the grocery store when the line inches along, in her hallway when she hears her neighbors talk about jetting to Tahoe for the weekend.
How can that work? I wondered. It's too simple.
Denise Cassino of "Perspectives and Ponderances" awarded my blog for "exemplary writing and interesting entries," August 24, 2008. She called it "a chronicled commentary on life, literature and the ironies that surround us" full of "humorous anecdotes and ponderings of daily life." Take a peek at my blog, Marilyn Coffey, Great Plains Writer. Or at Denise Cassino's blog , Perspectives and Ponderances
Checked out the Midway at Omaha's SeptemberFest. What a blast! A large colorful invasion of plastic since I had been on a Midway, especially in the children's section. My favorite: huge green dragons whose round bellies opened to swallow a child.
I rode the merry-go-round. I always do. It's my favorite. That and the Ferris wheel. I love the view from the top of the wheel, although Omaha's wheel was nothing compared to the first Ferris wheel, the one that Mr. Ferris designed and built for the 1893 crowd at the World's Fair in Chicago. His stood 26 stories tall and could carry 2,160 passengers. Ferris meant his wheel to rival the Eiffel Tower. What a gas it must have been to ride! Took six stops to load all the passengers; then the wheel revolved just once. But what a revolution! I expect it hardly mattered that the wheel rose to only a quarter of the height of the Eiffel Tower.
I wanted to ride one of the ponies, but the sturdy little beasts wore no stirrups. The man who circled them around also lifted the young riders onto the saddles. I didn't think he'd lift me, so I watched. One little boy got positively glassy eyed, imagining himself wheeling across the prairie, I supposed.
Purchased an Italian ice, the first I had eaten since I had left New York in 1989. It was much bigger than the New York version, not as lemony, and the tiny chunks of ice had been ground into something like a pudding. I spooned away and watched all the rides I avoid: dropping from a great height, locked in a cage and tumbled around, spinning upside down and the like.
Then I bought a tiny cup of critter food and began feeding the goats. How they spotted me coming! They butted their tiny two-horned heads against each other in food frenzies. The Australian kangaroo was much smaller than I expected, and the tortoise much larger than my little box turtle but just as inclined to ramble. The zebra was neat, but the camel was awesome, his big bushy heady swirling much higher than the fence. This camel did not look content, and I had heard that the beasts spit, so I edged past him quickly. (To watch a camel spitting at a transvestite, go tohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAuy-Jeb_sY&NR=1.)
Wandered the huge grounds, listened to live music, and eyeballed the antique cars and trucks lined up for a contest. The older the vehicle, the more preposterous the design, it seemed. A truck so low its skirts almost touched the ground. A car with a grill so huge it looked like the entrance to a fun house. All of them seemed positively spit polished.
Figured I was due one new experience, so I bought a Chicken-on-a-stick, all warm juicy white meat inside and horrible peppery high-cholesterol dough on the outside. A fly and I fought over nibbling rights, so I left my nibbled stick high in the garbage for the fly and went home.
How about you? What is your favorite midway memory?
Jared, the Subway Guy
I loved these classes, especially the way I disappeared in that final pose. I did not know where I went, but I knew I was not sleeping or thinking or daydreaming. I felt as though I had shot right out of the top of my head into a thick black luscious embracing space.
Title: North River: A Novel
Author: Pete Hamill
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price: $25.99, Publication Date: 2007, Page Count: 341
When I realized that Pete Hamill wrote North River, I almost let the book lie. Hamill seems more journalist than novelist to me, although a top-notch journalist whose writing has graced the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, The New Yorker, and Newsday. Still, his early novels seemed too flat for my taste, more journalese than fiction, so I stopped reading his books.
However, the jacket of North River featured a New York City skyline. An ex-New Yorker, I love stories about the Big Apple, and that's exactly where North River is set: New York in the 1930s with gangsters, Tammany hot shots, World War I vets, and prostitutes. Sounds just like Hamill, I thought. Then I noticedNorth River was his ninth novel. Maybe he's improved, I thought. So I took the book home and read it, just to see.
Hamill has improved. He still uses his plain, almost flat, journalistic style of writing, but what a story he pens! It features tall lean Dr. James Delaney whose closest World War I buddy is a hood, Eddie Corso, and that spells trouble. So does Dr. Delaney's daughter, who dashes by on her way from South America to Europe, dropping her three-year-old son, Carlito, in the doctor's vestibule. Naturally, the doctor has to hire a caretaker for his grandson so Dr. Delaney can continue to treat the stream of broken, downtrodden patients that makes up his practice. He hires Rosa Verga.
Both Rosa and the doctor have pasts. He is mourning his wife, Molly, long disappeared and presumed drowned in the North River, which is what New Yorkers called the Hudson then. Rosa, who cracked her husband's skull wide open with a baseball bat, is hiding her past. And the story steps briskly on from there.
Hamill's characters are believable; I particularly enjoyed Rosa. But I loved most the way Hamill recreated the doctor's 1930's Manhattan world. When Dr. Delaney and his grandson, Carlito, begin to explore together, this old world rises right up off the pages. I could just see antique cars spinning their tires on the street, the paddleball purchased in the toy store, Angela's restaurant in Little Italy. And the experience, near the end of the book, of the doctor and Rosa dancing in Roseland.
If you enjoy a story jam packed with persons and places, try North River. Like any good story, its tension increases as you approach the end. The book's resolution is strong, both certain and uncertain until page 340 when Rosa's "God damn you, Dottore" tips the balance.
Marilyn Coffey is an award-winning writer of poetry and a widely published author of prose. Visithttp://www,Amazon.com to purchase her work: Great Plains Patchwork, Marcella, or KANSAS QUARTERLY Vol. 15 No. 2.
Title: Poster Child: A Memoir
Author: Emily Rapp
Price: $24, Publication Date: 2007, Page Count: 230
Reviewer: Marilyn Coffey
I love to read memoirs, especially "little guy" memoirs. Celebrity memoirs are okay, especially if the celebrity is a writer, but time after time I'm drawn to books written by ordinary people. I find it easy to imagine myself in their lives. So it was small wonder that I gravitated to POSTER CHILD with its cover picture of a pert red-headed girl posing with her training bike. It's warm out. She's wearing shorts. Her artificial right leg looks like it's made of plastic; a bulb in its knee joint lets her pedal.
Emily Rapp, the author and the poster child, turned out to be a remarkable writer. She told me her story in such detail, including emotional detail, that I was swept into her anguish of being a child and a young woman who had a portion of her leg amputated when four. I had no idea, really, when I picked up this book what living with an artificial leg would be like. But soon I felt I was alongside her as she went through dozens of operations to replace her artificial leg as she outgrew it.
Listen to how clearly Rapp writes. "For my first fitting, I stood barefoot on the dirty floor of the changing room while the prosthetist took measurements of my stump. The stink of the healing wound was finally gone; the limb was clean. Now that the left foot had been removed, or "disarticulated"the sharp sound of the word matching the rough nature of the action itselfI had my natural heel at the end of the short leg."
But no wonder Rapp writes well. A Fulbright Scholarship recipient educated at Harvard, she is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
I highly recommend this book, primarily for the skill with which Rapp leads us through the first thirty years of her life, showing us what it was like to live with her "grievous, irrevocable flaw." Unflinchingly honest and sometime darkly humorous, POSTER CHILD is written without sentiment. I watched her struggle to keep up with her fashionable friends, her agony about making love to a man (should she leave her prosthesis on? off?), her final, tenuous, gift of acceptance.
An elegant writer, an amazing book.
January 31, 2008
Marilyn Coffey is an award-winning writer of poetry and a widely published author of prose. Visit her website,http://www.marilyncoffey.net for a sampling of her writing. Or read her work: Great Plains Patchwork, Marcella,or KANSAS QUARTERLY Vol. 15 No. 2.
I give you a high recommendation of a book I read this summer in both gulps and sips, Robert Roth's HEALTH PROXY. It's not a long book, but I found myself often putting it down while I thought about its ideas, even as I was gripped by its urgent self-questioning voice. Roth's observations about life and death, social and economic hierarchies, and the nature of our responsibilities to each other form a jittery, loving, and conscience-ridden record of his fierce engagement with the lives of friends and family from the 1980's to the present. "In ways deep and often constant, I engage other people's pain, their panic. Never letting myself fully be touched," Roth writes. "What at once shields me, simultaneously allows me to be open. But my openness also creates a constant state of low-level trauma that further creates . . . distancing in myself from myself."
Creating its own form, halfway between a memoir and a chronicle, this is a book of tremendous immediacy that begins with Roth's appointment as the "health proxy" for a friend dying of AIDS, a role he also assumes for his gravely ill aunt. A sixty year-old socialist/anarchist who consciously defies the limits of convenient labeling, Roth narrows the space between narrator and self--a space which can only be narrowed, never eliminated. For this narrator, all issues are intimate and personal; all issues are moral questions. Yet HEALTH PROXY is playful in part, or at least ironic, in its examination of what we see and how we are seen in large and small scale. The author discusses his low-status job delivering the largely unread New York University student newspaper, the hearty unrecognized condescension of academics reassuring themselves of their own good will towards laborers, the tacit institutional scams furthered by the printer and the distributors. He introduces his own bemused reaction to his waning good looks, his health fears, his lusts for women, his identification with socially and sexually disavowed segments of society. Despite the gravity of Roths central material, lives dwindling ("I watch myself age/before my friends very eyes,") while "friends socialize each other into old age," the real subject matter of this honest, unpretentious, freely associative book turns out to be an affirmation of life ongoing. In this more celebratory vein,HEALTH PROXY concludes with a section called "Wild Berries Singing," which is about the writing and performing of an exhilarating children's opera in Great Britain. (HEALTH PROXY is available from Yuganta Press, 6 Rushmore Circle, Stamford CT 07905-1029 or http://yuganta.com/health.html
Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey released a flood of memories for me.
In high school, we had a somewhat dour old-maid school teacher named Miss Mackey. She took her English seriously and of course taught all of us freshman how to diagram sentences. Diagramming sentences was in the air. In those days, the 1950s, it seemed that every school child learned how to diagram, although I hear it's not much of a sport these days.
I loved to diagram. In that regard, I was in good company. Gertrude Stein loved to diagram sentences, too. "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences," she writes. I agreed. It was one of those activities I understood instantly. Soon I felt I could do no wrong.
And I couldn't.
I found this out when our school acquired a young coach who, to our amazement, taught us English. He assigned a research paper. I selected as my topic, "Miracles," and researched it thoroughly in my mother's stacks of Reader's Digest. I turned it in, expecting an "A," my usual grade when I wrote a paper. But when the Coach returned mine, the "A" was crossed out and replaced with an "F." He explained to me that he'd taken off a point for each time I'd misspelled "Miracel" [his correct spelling]. But when I could find no Miracel, only Miracle, in the dictionary, I demanded my A back which, of course, he had to return. Reluctantly.
After that, the Coach seemed to look for ways to take me down a peg, as we said in those far off days. I bristled, too. When he started teaching us to diagram sentences, he went backhesitantlyover the same material that Miss Mackey had covered so efficiently. I knew it well, and must have squirmed in my seat, because the first thing I knew, the Coach had grabbed my textbook, opened it to the very back, and said, "If you're so smart, let's see you diagram this!" His finger landed on a sentence half a page long. Then he pointed to the blackboard.
I began to diagram, drawing lines here and there, copying the words onto the lines. I loved it. It was a joy. When I used up all the blackboards on one wall, I went right on to the next wall and used all those boards, too. Maybe Henry James wrote that sentence. He's known for his capacity to "construct convoluted but still perfectly lucid sentences." writes Kitty. But he wasn't the champion. Marcel Proust is even more famous than James for long sentences. His longest, 958 words in translation, is the subject of a poster whereupon it is diagrammed. It's a sentence with no subject.
"I'm finished," I said.
The Coach picked up his text and turned to the back where all the answers were printed. But he found no answer for that particular sentence. I guess it was too advanced. He looked at what I'd done, then read the original sentence, then looked again. At last he went out and asked Miss Mackey if she'd come in and see if I'd diagramed that sentence correctly.
He must have hated me.
Anyway, all this is just a preliminary to explain why I was so delighted to find Kitty Burns Florey's book on diagramming sentences. It made me long for a blackboard and a piece of chalk. It made me long for those days when I was always right.