My grandmother passed away the other day. She was 93 years old. I was glad that I got to see her one last time on Mother’s Day. As she sat in the kitchen eating the ham and sweet corn that my uncle had made for us, she was constantly looking around, observing her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild: she said very little––just observed. As I was making small talk with my cousin and watching my niece designing her ideal 9th birthday party in her sticker book, I noticed my grandmother staring at me. She never said anything––just stared––almost as if she was taking in one, long, last look.
We called her Nana Yo. My mother joked to my youngest cousin and more recently to her granddaughter, that she got the name Nana Yo because she was the Yo-Yo Queen of the 1940′s. For us older kids, we understood it was short for her first name, Yolanda.
A few months ago, I learned that my grandmothers maiden name (Marco) was originally longer than what I had known it to be (Panasidi-Marco)––it was shortened when she arrived in America from her homeland of Marina di Caronia, Sicily, Italy. Funny what you learn so many years later.
A few years ago, I reunited her with her sister who she hadn’t seen or spoken to in almost twenty years. We may never know what the real cause of their rift was, however, both she and her sister both thanked me for bringing them back together. It was probably one of the most important things that I ever did for her.
Here’s a picture of her that I took in 2008 on a sunny day in her backyard. The old style curlers tightly wound in her hair. On the table beside her, most likely a Dewar’s––straight up, rocks on the side. If I liked scotch, I’d go drink one for you today. Maybe you’d approve of a fine Italian wine instead.
I just returned from a rejuvenating and inspiring 3-days at Grub Street‘s The Muse and The Marketplace literary conference in Boston. I live in Boston so it wasn’t to much of a hike. The sessions were all fantastic and the panelists gave me so much information that it’ll probably take a good week to digest it all. I even got to meet and listen to Amanda Palmer give a very touching Keynote address.
On the last day of the conference I attended the session called: 10 Steps to a Kickass Essay, hosted by Ann Hood. You can find her on Twitter: @annhood56. These writing tips were so insightful that I wanted to share what I learned with everyone. Here are my notes. Feel free to steal and share as needed.
1. Write like an orphan.
Hold back emotionally.
If your motive is revenge, no one will want to read it. Those type of essays lack depth.
If your writing about someone who was died, don’t mythologize the person.
2. A personal essay is about just one thing. Only one topic.
3. Every personal essay is really two things: what’s on the surface, and what bubbles underneath.
External thing + Internal thing.
Make sure there is a concrete story.
4. Make sense of the events. You don’t report them, you make sense of them.
Open the essay with event. Don’t trick the reader or leave it until the end.
When writing about a hot topic, write it cold.
You report, then you reflect
5. Push past the ending that makes sense.
Add a line or two after the closing sentence.
Go beyond the Norman Rockwell ending.
6. ”What do you know now that you did not know then.”
Force yourself to come to a realization.
7. Power of Once. The use of flashback. Don’t top load the essay in flashback. If you start with a flashback, the whole essay will be in the flashback.
8. Objective Correlative: The author uses an event or an object to stand in for an emotion.
9. You need to write well! A personal essay is not a bundle of emotions. It’s not a journal entry.
10. Don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know about yet.
Think outside your box
in order to find something
that you least expect.
-Haiku for May
Batman was ‘the caped crusader’ and he drove the Batmobile. What would you call someone who drove the Bookmobile. Yes, there was such a thing and such a person as seen here in this photograph circa 1913.
An International Auto Wagon with a rear compartment containing shelves of books is parked outside a library. A man in a bowler hat is selecting a book from what appears to be a “bookmobile.”
Image appeared in the May 1913 issue of Harvester World magazine on page 4. According to the accompanying article, the “book wagon” traveled through Washington County, Maryland under the supervision of Hagerstown Librarian Miss Mary L. Titcomb.
(Image and text courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)
From my Back Bay Boston penthouse, I can see all the way to Copley Square. It was a clear blue morning. The sun was out and not a cloud in the sky. Through the half open slats on the shutters I could see an American Flag off in the distance at half-mast on top of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. The choppers were on full alert throughout the night and morning. The sirens have started to dissipate.
It’s the day after the Boston Marathon: It’s the day after my city was bombed. Yesterday was ideal weather conditions for the annual run, unlike last year where it was about eighty degrees. There were many runners who dropped out last year due to the heat––it was unbearable. This year there were many runners who never made it across the finish line because they were forced to stop less than a mile from the finish––the race had been canceled. The runners were corralled in Kenmore Square with no idea what was going on less than a mile ahead.
I don’t consider myself a runner, although I run once in a while with my good friend Mark. I was a spectator this year like every year because Mark was running it. He’s a die-hard runner and I support him. His brother and I took the train out to mile 16 just so that we could earn our 5-minutes of fame by handing off a bottle of Mark’s favorite power drink to him as he ran by––success! We jumped right back on the train just in time to see him cross the finish line.
We gathered at the finish line for approximately 30 minutes waiting for Mark’s girlfriend to finish. Mark thought we probably missed her, so we walked with him towards the family waiting area. At that point he said, “you and my brother head back to my house and I’ll be back there in 30 minutes and we’ll do dinner.” We left Mark and started to head down Clarendon St. We were two blocks away when the bombs went off. I felt it. In my head, I thought, what the fuck was that, but then I thought, it’s Patriots Day––maybe they’re firing the canons on The Esplanade.
I walked up the stairs to my brownstone, opened the door and was greeted by my hungry little dog. I immediately heard muffled sounds coming from the roof and then sirens––sirens like I had never heard before. I climbed the ladder and opened my roof hatch. My neighbors were on their roof decks looking toward the marathon route and asked me if I saw the bombs go off. “What! Where were they?” I asked. “Over by the finish line”, they said––very close to where I had just left Mark.
I panicked. I threw some food in the dog bowl and I grabbed my jacket and was out the door, neighbor in tow. We ran back to Boylston Street and at that exact moment, police started to barricade the area and was pushing people away from the scene. I needed to find Mark. It was chaos––people were running everywhere. The trains were all shut down and so were some of the streets. Usually thousands of spectators pack Boylston Street for this event and they mostly arrive by train. People didn’t know what to do. News photographers were running at us with their large lenses and police, fire and emergency vehicles were coming in a steady stream from all directions.
We began heading toward Mark’s house. I tried to call his brother who was back at the house and there was no answer and he wasn’t returning my texts––cell coverage was starting to get spotty. When I got to the house Mark’s brother was standing outside. “Is he back yet”, I yelled. He wasn’t. I was determined to stand by his front door until he got home. I needed to see his face. As we stood outside waiting, I checked Twitter to see what was going on. People were huddled around my little camera phone to see pictures that people had been posting––it was horrible. One woman stopped and asked us if any of us had a car. Another said, I didn’t get to finish and I have no idea how to get home. We felt helpless.
About ten minutes passed and another concerned friend showed up to wait with us. My phone started to ring every few minutes with either a family member checking on me, or friends from far and away. I was touched at the amount of people who cared to reach out knowing that I lived in Boston and also so close to the marathon. If it were any of them in this circumstance, I’d be doing the exact same thing.
My friend Mark has always been one of my biggest supporters. One of his best traits is that he values loyalty above all else. His loyal friends were there at his house waiting like his obedient Labradors as he turned the corner onto his street with his girlfriend and her parents. We learned that she had finished the race twelve minutes before the first bomb exploded and her parents were near the grandstands in-between the two explosions and were lead to safety by a helpful bystander. Mark’s friends and current and former co-workers were calling every minute. He was shocked by the support that he received. I wasn’t surprised for one bit because this guy is a stand-up guy. He’s the type of person that leaves a lasting impression, and truly cares about his close friends as if they were family members.
Yesterday was one of the most nerve-racking days that I’ve ever felt and it spilled over to today. My wife never made it home last night because of the bridge and street closings, so I’ll be happy to see her smiling face soon. It’s hard to be separated from your loved ones in crisis situations like what we have gone through.
It’s been a little more than 24 hours since the event occurred. Our parks have been turned into parking lots for TV news and satellite dishes from all over the place. There are police in riot gear with assault weapons posted at the entrances to our train stations. The last stretch of the marathon route on Boylston Street where the two bombs went off have been left untouched as state and local officials scour the area for clues to what happened.
I’m still in shock that this disgusting and disturbing attack happened in my neighborhood. I only can hope it returns to normal soon.
This week I’ve been sick, however it’s given me some time to do some editing on the book. I should’ve posted a picture of a big pile of crumpled up Puff Plus tissues, then you’d get the idea of what’s been oozing out of my nose. The tissues have filled up a waste basket and remind me of when people used to type stories onto paper, and when they would fuck up, they’d crumple up the paper and throw it away. You can picture it, right?
There’s some fine tuning I wanted to do before passing all of these essays on to my real editor. I know she’s going to dismantle a lot of what I have done over the past year and I’m actually pretty excited about it. I’ve been reading these essays over and over so many times that I’m actually sick of them. Hopefully once the book is published, you’ll enjoy reading them once or twice before passing the book off to one of your friends or selling it to a used bookstore.
Some women don’t like flowers. My wife is one of them. She’d rather I spend my money on things that last––actually scratch that: she’d rather I not spend any money. I’ve accepted the no-flowers rule because I’m not a fan of them either. A flower shop smells like a funeral home, and that reminds me of dead things, and frankly, I’m not into dead things or zombies.
Back when we were dating, I did entice my wife, who I’ve been with for twenty years this year, with a single sunflower. She thought that was original, but not as original as the comment that I made about her big feet on the day we first met. Yes, I know. You’re probably saying to yourself, what a dope. But let me set the scene. I saw her sitting at a table––legs crossed, one leg bouncing off the other. I said, “You have the biggest feet that I’ve ever seen…I love them.” Her response: “I’m gonna marry you.” So needless to say, I’m grateful that she was true to her word and has kept me around so long. After our first date, I knew I was with someone special. I did one of those one-arm fist pumps like I was Ray Bourque scoring the winning goal for the Boston Bruins. F.Y.I: hockey players invented the fist-pump, not them Jersey Shore kids.
You know what I find truly amazing about my wife: The way she shops. She has a Masters Degree in Shopping––not really, but maybe a college should take a hint and start one. My wife has this Twitter handle @eatshoplivebos. Yes, she does all of those things in Boston, but let’s analyze that second word: shop. If you have a woman like my woman, it will be quite evident if you watch them shop. Do it––just take her to the mall or to one of her favorite stores.
Generally speaking, you won’t see her beeline to the ‘just arrived’ rack in the store, rather a frugal consumer, scratch that––a bargain shopper like my wife dives right into the clearance rack. She’ll whip those hangers around feverishly side to side like she was a lioness attacking a zebra on the Serengeti until she has sifted through the entire rack (please note: no animals were harmed during the writing of this essay).
To get the title of Ms. Bargainess (I actually just made that up) took years of practice. The skills were earned like patches on a Girl Scouts sash by watching her mother Thelma shop at the now defunct Filene’s Basement. Do you want to see a bargain shopper’s eyes light up? Show them a hundred and twenty dollar dress marked down five times to the new low price of nineteen ninety nine. They leave the store like they just robbed it!
Us men, we have no clue what we’re doing in department stores. We buy labels––name brands and what our eyes are drawn to, rather than price. If it fits, that’s a bonus because not everything fits in my world. That’s because my body type just won’t fit into skinny jeans or athletic fit shirts that designers are so eager to pump out to their consumers. I’m one of those average males who exercises occasionally and eats whatever I want––frankly, I don’t have a shut off valve. I’m certain that there’s a lot of ‘my’ type out there, however, this story isn’t about me.
When we’re at a store together, my wife’s adamant that we go our separate ways. “J, you’re not going to follow me around like a little puppy dog. If you’re going to do that, then you shoulda just stayed at home.” It gets even better when she addresses me like she’s a boxing trainer. “Honey, you need to poke around. Move your feet and check out the racks. If you’re tired, go sit in that chair in the corner. I’ll come over and get you when I’m ready to leave. If you’re too tired to shop, go out in the car and take a nap.” Have you ever seen a person leave a store with a bag full of merchandise, hop up on the bumper of their SUV, throw their hands up in the air in victory and shout, “Adrian!” You haven’t? Neither have I, but I bet it would make for a good movie, maybe something like Rocky XVIII: the Nordstrom Rack experiment.
No April showers
and that goes for rain or snow
warmer weather soon.
-Haiku for April
So yes, we are now aware that GoodReads has been acquired by Amazon. There seems to be mixed emotions about this throughout the social media circles that I’m in, and that’s normal when any change happens. It’s a great website, and if you’re into books, then check it out. In fact, check out my GoodReads page (see link at the bottom of this post).
I’ve been on a memoir quest this year, both writing one and reading many. Actually, I have another memoir idea that I’m trying to formulate now concerning my paternal grandfather. Born a twin on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, as a young boy he was shipped off to the United States to live with his aunt and uncle. The specifics of why this happened are vague. I plan to go to Nova Scotia this summer to research my heritage and hopefully learn a little more about my family and myself.
Anyhow, I’ve been getting some nice support from friends and fellow artists about my writing process and suggestions on books to read. These are the two newest additions to my list. I will be reading Elsewhere by Richard Russo first, then will tackle The Shipping News by Annie Proulx next––two Pulitzer Prize winners that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own.
If anyone is curious what books I’ve been reading or what books are on my shelf, visit my GoodReads page (here).