I’ve been noticing for some time that the most-read post on my blog is the one called Parental Secrets.  I wrote it when I found out unexpectedly that I had a half-sister that was adopted into another family when I was a child.  A half-sister I didn’t know existed until six or eight months ago.  It’s curious to me that this is my most-read post.  People seem to Google the term ‘parental secrets’ pretty frequently, which makes me even more curious about just what it is all those people are searching for that they don’t already know about their parents and think they might find on the Internet.

Today, I finished Jeannette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  A Winterson fan, I ravaged the book daily on the train into the city every day this week, and wrapped it up when I got home tonight. I loved it, but for reasons unexpected.  Her writing is entirely different than that in her novels, which makes sense, considering the whimsy, the fantasy, the intricately woven metaphors in her fiction.  That style is not suited quite so well to the telling of a personal history, though her genius with words is still evident throughout the memoir.

After I graduated from high school, I went to college for exactly one semester.  I happened to take an English Lit course, and one of the assigned readings was T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets.  Even if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may not know how that poem tore open the meaning of passion for me.  When it was assigned by my professor, he handed out off-center photocopies, made from a book opened and placed face down on the copy machine, odd patches of dark shadow in the corners, text warped in a subtle curve where the center crease of the spine refused to lie flat.  I still have that photocopy, smudged from having been handled so many times, the texture more fuzzy cotton than paper where it has been folded in half for twenty years, tucked away in the box of sacred things I save.

I began reading Jeanette Winterson’s books a few years later, I think, though I don’t remember specifically when it was.  As I delved into Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, and The Passion, I occasionally felt something familiar about certain phrases, certain lines in her novels.  I couldn’t name it at first – but I slowly began to feel that some of her writing reminded me of Burnt Norton, specifically with reference to the presentation of time.  I shrugged it off, thinking I must be imagining things.  I continued to notice subtle similarities, though, and eventually, I read a sentence that matched word-for-word a line I knew was in Burnt Norton.  I was thrilled in a way that may make sense to no one but me, but there was something about the fact that I’d made this connection through my own observations that seemed profound.  No instructor had pointed me in this direction, and I had no idea what Winterson’s background was.  I just loved the things I was reading, and I stumbled across a connection that had great meaning for me.

I have no idea if it was conscious or not that Winterson wrote what she did.  Perhaps it was pure coincidence, or perhaps I fabricated this connection because I wanted it to be there.  It doesn’t really matter, though.  What mattered was the depth of feeling the experience inspired in me, and still does.   So, by now, you can probably imagine the satisfaction I felt when Winterson spoke of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and even included a direct quote from Burnt Norton in her memoir.  It made that thin thread I thought I saw so many years ago a little thicker in my mind’s eye.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? spoke directly to my soul, in more ways than I can recount here without turning this into a novel itself, which I am perilously close to doing already.  One of the ways it did so was in Winterson’s rich description of her experience as an adopted child.  I haven’t known many people who were adopted.  The only adopted person I’ve known well seemed not to care a whit that she had been separated from her birth parents, but I figure she has to be the exception.  I assume it has to be very difficult to come to terms with not knowing who your parents are, wondering why they gave you away, thinking on bad days that you wish you had the life you were born to, a life you convince yourself you should have had.  Mostly, though, I think it’s one of those things that you just can’t know as an observer.  Winterson’s story peeled back layers for me, though, bringing me perhaps as close as I can come to understanding, from the perspective of an adopted person, the nagging feeling that something in you is missing, always has been, and always will be.

Of course, this brings me back full circle to the beginning of this post.  Over the past months, the subject of adoption has become much more personal to me.  I’ve slowly gotten to know more about the half-sister I never knew I had.  The experience has at different times both satisfied me and left me wanting.  I’m sure my half-sister has felt more extreme versions of those feelings than I have.  At first, we emailed each other frequently, and I poured out stories about myself, searching for the characteristics we might have in common.  Over time, our communication has become very spotty, and it seems we don’t know what to say to each other.  Is blood thicker than water?  If I’m honest, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting deeper connections. It doesn’t stop me from searching for those places of convergence, where the things that are important to me come together in a way that makes them bigger and bolder than they were when they stood apart.  Perhaps the irony in all of this is that even though I wasn’t adopted, I, too, have always had a nagging feeling that something in me was missing.  When it comes down to it, who doesn’t?  Sometimes it seems the more we look at our differences, the more we realize we’re all the same.

P.S.  If you are so inclined, you can read Burnt Norton here.

Beginnings and an Introduction

My first week at the new job has been nothing less than a spectacular whirlwind of activity.  It all started last week when my boss called me and asked if I would join her and two others at some client meetings on Monday and Tuesday.  Monday was to be my first day at work, so I was a bit flabbergasted that it would be spent in client meetings without my having any real background about the company to speak of, outside what I learned in my interview.  Add to that the fact that the client was in Milwaukee, and I’d have to travel at the last minute, and the stage was set for a crazy beginning.

Lucky for me, my family lives only an hour from Milwaukee, so I was able to squeeze in dinner with a few relatives – not a bad bonus, all things considered.

Everyone else flew in on a red-eye Sunday evening, so I met them in the hotel lobby just in time for us to drive over to the client meetings on Monday morning.  I sat in the back seat with the technical guy that was along for the trip.  He is Russian, which was exciting for me, given my love of diversity and passion for communicating with foreigners.

The Russian introduced himself, and immediately explained that if I had any trouble understanding him because of his accent or because his English wasn’t good enough, I need only stop him to clarify.  He added that his written English is much better than his spoken English, though I think his spoken English is just fine.

Making small talk on the ride over, I mentioned that I was from the area as I explained why I’d flown in Sunday morning instead of Sunday evening.  His response was maybe the best response I’ve ever heard from a stranger after revealing where I grew up.

[Don’t forget the Russian accent…]

“The only thing I know about Wisconsin is from Slaughterhouse Five,” he said.

“Ah, of course!” I replied.

“‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin, I work in 
a lumbermill there.’ The people I meet when I walk down 
the street, They say, ‘What is your name?’ And I say 
‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin…”

“Yes, yes,” he said, grinning and nodding his head emphatically.

What could be better than that?  A Russian who thinks his English is bad, but who can quote Vonnegut – granted, it’s perhaps the most well-known Vonnegut book, but still.  All I could think was ‘Wow, it will be cool to work with this guy!’

I now have to settle on a name for my new Russian coworker.  ‘The Russian’ might work, since he seems to be the only one at the company.  I also tend to get ‘Sergei’ stuck in my head when I think of him, even though that is not his name.  I’m tempted to go with Yon Yonson, even though the real Jan Janson credited with the song was Danish.  I’ll think on it for awhile before I decide…


Check out my interview!

Nothing like a shameless personal plug, huh?  But, seriously, J. C. Martin, Fighter Writer, periodically interviews people on her blog, and she was kind enough to post an interview with yours truly.  I’m grateful for the extra exposure, J.C.!

Coming soon:  an update on my first few days at the new job…

Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)

My recent off-the-blog writing focus has been on essays – one in particular that I just finished up and submitted to two creative non-fiction contests.  In an effort to improve my essay skills, I have been reading a great number of essays as I write, and am at the moment, in the middle of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a classic collection of essays by Joan Didion.  I am really enjoying her writing, and below is an example of what makes it great, and what makes the essay such a perfect vehicle for the expression of personal opinion in a way that is unique, yet relatable by wider audiences.

In a profile of Michael Laski, at 26 years old, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist), Didion describes a man on the edge of society, one that does not really fit in, even within the community and movement he so passionately dedicates his every effort towards.  She follows with her reaction to this man who accomplishes little of consequence in attempting to further his ideals.

“As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”

This essay was written in 1967, a time when politically, there would have been much more hubbub about Communism than we are likely to see again.  The focus of the piece has little to do with Communism, but it is the cleverness with which Didion focuses on the nature of Michael Laski, connecting him to any number of individuals in the world that pursue extremes as a means to “fill the void” that makes the essay work.  She is able to generalize from a very specific starting point, and the examples she chooses to illustrate “the opiates of the people,” provoke a wholly separate exercise in thought, which has significant depth in its own right.

More great fortunes

I could not confirm that the Ohio pet store ad I wrote of yesterday featured paintings of a dog and a cat.  At first, my friend thought I might be right, but when I pointed out just how stupid that would make the ad, she laughed hysterically for a minute, then decided it couldn’t really be true.  I still suspect I’m right, but I can’t be sure…

In any event, the two of us got some of the best fortunes I have ever read from our fortune cookies (manufactured in Hayward, CA, I noticed on the packaging).  Mine read:

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”

My friend’s fortune topped mine, and by a long shot, I might add – but I’ll let you be the judge…

“No one has ever drowned in their own sweat.”

I want to find the person that writes these fortunes and hire them for something – I don’t know what, but something.

Mangled words

Tonight I am meeting a couple of friends at the so-so Chinese restaurant next to my favorite dive karaoke bar, both of which I recently mentioned.  On what might seem like an unrelated note, I was just scanning the ever-lengthening list of categories on my blog.  I am obsessed with categorizing, but now and then, I think I might be overdoing it – especially when a category sits for a long time with only one post in it.  Sometimes I try to use those lonely categories as sparks to write other posts so there will be no singletons in the long run.  As my eye skimmed the list, it lingered for a moment on ‘Las Vegas,’ and I think it’s because I’m going to the karaoke bar tonight.  The thing is, I’ve never gone to a karaoke place in Las Vegas – so what is the connection?  Mangled words.

My favorite karaoke bar is called ‘Mel-O-Dee.’  Yep, I know.  Horrible, yet somehow completely appropriate for a dive karaoke bar in a strip mall.

My favorite place to gamble in Las Vegas is called ‘Slots-O-Fun.’  It, too, is a dive – just a dive casino instead of a karaoke bar, and to my opinion, it is also perfectly named.  It’s awesome because it’s cheaper than the casinos in the big hotels (I won a few hundred dollars on a quarter roulette table one night), yet it’s still on the strip – next to Circus Circus and across the street from the Riviera, which is a horrible hotel that used to be nice in the day, according to my grandparents, who never stayed anywhere else in their many trips to Vegas for an annual gun show.

Thinking about the mangled words that make up the names of these places, I am reminded of one other particularly horrible advertisement.  While I haven’t seen this ad in more than 17 years, every single mangled word still sticks in my brain.  It was painted by someone not very skilled at painting, on the brick wall of a building I used to have to walk past to get home every night after work, in a small college town in Ohio –   It was an ad for a pet store, and it read:

We got ’bout EVERYTHIN’
‘cept Cats ‘N Dogs!

I don’t remember if the name of the pet store was included in the semi-washed out wall painting, but I will never forget that horrid line because, unlike my acceptance of the mangled words for the aforementioned karaoke bar and casino, I just could not accept this ridiculous advertisement, yet I had to see it every single day.  I’m not sure I fully trust my memory on this, but I think the ad even had a picture of a dog’s head and a cat’s head – which I personally think is as stupid as stupid gets.

Interestingly enough, one of the friends that accompanies me to Mel-O-Dee happens to have been my next-door neighbor from that college town in Ohio over 17 years ago, and I know that she, too, remembers the ridiculous pet store ad, because she hated it as much as I did – maybe more.  In any case, I will ask her about the ad tonight to see if she remembers either the name of the store or the surrounding poorly painted images on the wall.  I will, of course, share anything interesting that I learn.

Follow the Links

I’ve shared a link or two in the past to Hooked, a wonderfully interesting blog by an equally interesting woman about her experience as an Alaskan fisherman.  She was recently interviewed for a piece on Oregon Public Broadcasting about the intersection between her writing and fishing lives.  She’s shared the link from her own blog, but I wanted to share it here, too.  This is what writing is about for me.  Finding the voice Tele describes in her interview, and finding other writers like Tele who inspire me to keep refining that voice for myself.

When I stumbled on this post while tag-surfing in the infinitely broad category of ‘Writing,’ I had to read it for a few reasons, all of which are in the title, “My Big Fat Lesbian Life – Demi Moore and Orange Leisure Suits.”  Check it out.  I’m glad I did.

This post made me smile.  It’s a simple reminder that we too often over-classify or underestimate people.  We’re all guilty, and maybe that’s why it feels so good when we recognize and stop ourselves from doing so.

Here’s a humorous look at approaching the big ‘4-0,’ which I am getting ever closer to reaching myself.  When you’re done with that, though, keep going for ‘Gasoline For Valentine’s Day.’

Charlie Hale is a writer I love to read.  This post on family stories is a good example of why I’m constantly drawn back to his blog.  I, too, am a bit of a genealogy nut, but Charlie is a masterful storyteller and he seems to effortlessly stamp everything he writes with a sense of importance.

The history of the fortune cookie

Every now and then, I eat at a so-so Chinese restaurant with a friend, because it’s situated next door to my favorite dive karaoke bar in the strip mall near my home (I know – awesome all around, right?).  It’s always a good idea for me to fill up on fried rice before I head in for an evening of cheap, but strong drinks, or else I will end up singing, which amuses no one.  Of course, each meal ends with a fortune cookie, which some, but perhaps not all, people know is not actually Chinese in origin at all.  There is something of a debate on the true origins of the cookie.  Claims have been made that it originated in San Francisco and in Los Angeles and was based on a Japanese dessert.  No one is really positive, but there is no question it did not come from China.

Now, I’ve seen some ridiculous fortunes come out of those mildly sweet and crunchy (assuming they’re not stale) little delights, but the one I got most recently tops them all.  See picture.  Yes, it really said ‘Made in USA.’  I haven’t yet figured out if that is some cosmic commentary on the state of US economic affairs and the explosion of the China into the world market, or if it was some sly person’s attempt at clarifying for us dumb Americans that we did actually invent the fortune cookie.

Regardless, I like the image of some mischievous wit somewhere  whose job it is to type in a gazillion different ‘fortunes’ into a computer.  Can you imagine how much fun you could have, slipping in nonsense or completely inappropriate phrases, just to see how long you could get away with it before someone noticed?

* Online fortune cookie generator courtesy of Jim Blackler.  Try it here.