Archive for March 2010

National Poetry Month- National Poetry Exercise Month (Blocking Writer’s Block)

March 31, 2010

April Poetry Clock

April is National Poetry Month.  This “tradition” was started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets.

I guess the idea was to hook people’s love of targeted celebrations to poetry.  April seems to have been chosen because it followed Black History Month (February), and Women’s History Month (March), and because it did not include Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, was during the school term (schools are natural candidates for the celebration of poetry), but not at the busy beginning of the school term, or at its tousled end.  (Of course, Easter and Passover sometimes fall in April, but as religious holidays, these are not big competitors for concentrated school celebration time.)

April may have also been chosen because it already reverberates with specific poetic associations.  Yes, it’s the cruelest month, but it also (and perhaps more popularly) hosts “shoures soote.”  It’s (presumably) when lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed, and at least one of the times when it pleured in Verlaine’s coeur.

April also seems to be a popular month for relatively new, made-up, sorts of holidays like April Fool’s Day, Professional Administrative Assistant’s Day (the fourth Wednesday) followed by Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day (the fourth Thursday, perhaps intended as payback to Administrative Assistants), Earth Day (April 22nd), Tax Day (April 15th).  While “Tax Day” is not exactly a holiday (unless standing in a long line at the post office is your idea of a good time), it is a day of national observance.

Then there are other newish April holidays that seem too obscure to warrant mention, but are just too goofy to leave out: Zipper Day, National Honesty Day (date of George Washington’s inauguration), Girl Scout Leader Appreciation Day, National Pineapple-Upside-Down-Cake Day, National Read a Road Map Day, and, my personal favorite No Housework Day (April 5th), which also falls on World Health Day.   (In keeping with these holidays, April is also Stress Awareness Month.)

In celebration of National Poetry Month (and perhaps also Stress Awareness Month), I am proposing to replace the daily ruminations I post on this blog with a new poem, or truly, the draft of a new poem, each day of the month.

This will be an interesting exercise for me; and I hope you’ll find it one as well.  It is intended to follow up on the various posts about blocking writer’s block, the theme being how to write poetry with no clear inspiration other than a (relatively short) deadline.

This may also be a way of celebrating April Fool’s Day (all month long.)

If any one has topics, suggestions, poems of their own, please note them in a comment!

March Winds; Mental Health; Greater Parity In Health Care Legislation

March 30, 2010

Brain Chemistry

March is nearly over.  Anyone who lives in the gale force winds of downtown Manhattan will be extremely glad to see its end.  This includes my old dog Pearl, who, despite her near perfect bladder control, peed once in the apartment and once in the lobby this evening in an effort to avoid spending any time at all in the rain-spattered winds outside. (Darn you, Pearl!)

Somehow these gusting winds and my leaking dog bring up… mental health.  Forceful emotions, mood swings, bouts of depression, clinging to a fence post, or something worse, and (you got it), the recently passed health care legislation.

One of the changes wrought by the new legislation is a greater parity of treatment for mental and physical health issues.   This is, of course, welcomed by mental health professionals;  even an outsider, like myself, tends to agree that a greater focus on mental health seems needed in this country (and I say this not only as an observer of the Tea Party movement.)   The National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that approximately one in four Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, and about one in seventeen from one of the most serious mental illnesses;  an illness that affects one’s mind, one’s ability to really perceive and truly gauge reality, one’s self, the people around one, can certainly put a halt to one’s ability to function in the world as powerfully as a physical illness.   (To say nothing of putting a serious dent in the old happiness budget.)

The greater parity makes sense too because the line between mental and physical health is sometimes thinly drawn;  both just seem so chemical.    As one ages, one becomes particularly conscious of how circumstances, conditioning, genetics, chemistry, all seem to play upon each other in one’s brain.  (I have to confess that I base this statement on instinct more than scientific measurement.  I can feel in my water that it’s true, however.)

One problem with the new parity is that the benefits of many mental health treatments seem very uncertain;  side effects can be problematic;  some treatments lose efficacy over time;  additionally, some people whose functioning really isn’t very impaired may seek ongoing and expensive treatment (people who just really like the attention of a therapist).   Of course, efficacy, risk, side effects, and over or unnecessary usage, are issues with physical health treatments as well; (people who just really like the attention of a physical therapist).   Who knows yet how all of this will play out?    For many (the one in seventeen at least), it seems good that future choices may not be made simply on the grounds of what’s covered.

Moscow Subway Bombings Reverberate In New York

March 29, 2010

The headlines today about the bombings in the Moscow subway system held a double whammy for New Yorkers.  First, there was tremendous sadness and horror at the loss of life in Moscow.   Secondly, there was the guiltily, self-centered fear, not of whether it could happen here, but whether it will.

Even so, there was no new tension on the New York City subway system;  this may be because it is the first day of Passover, which means that the subways were less crowded than usual, and that many observant Jews (who unfortunately may be particular targets in New York) were not on the trains.

On top of this, New Yorkers are a bit fatalistic;  to get on the train day after day, particularly after 9/11, you have to just hope/assume/pray that if something happens on one train, you (and everyone you know) will be on the next one, or the one before it, or the one stopped in the tunnel way way down the line.

Then there’s the New Yorker bravura, the gritty sense of invulnerability that makes us all feel a bit like the Yankees–that we will somehow make it to the play-offs no matter what.  (Of course, many of us also feel like the Mets, that no matter how much we try, we won’t really win, but that’s mainly a feeling about our economic status, not our basic survival.)

Many New Yorkers have little tricks.  Avoiding rush hour trains;  getting on less crowded cars; even occasionally getting off the train if someone who looks suspicious (unfortunately, this may be someone simply in foreign dress) with several large square-cut, plaid, plastic bags.   But most New Yorkers don’t follow these tricks very much–with transportation cuts, almost any hour is rush hour (i.e. crowded); more importantly, if you avoided people who looked suspicious or foreign in New York, you’d probably have to stay in your own apartment (and even then, you’d most likely have to avoid mirrors.)

The Russian bombings seem particularly troubling because of the participation of female suicide bombers.  There is a history of female suicide bombings in Russia and around the world, with some groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam using women bombers in 30-40% of their attacks.  (From a 2004 study of suicide bombers by Debra D. Zedalis for the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.)  Females have not figured largely among the images of terrorists in the U.S. however.  As someone with an instinctive trust of most of my fellow women, I find this perhaps the most shocking part of these terrible bombings.

My grandmother used to always ask my mother if she thought that her “life was laid out” for her;  meaning pre-destined.   My mother said no; she believed that people had some choice in their fate.  But my grandmother, an old lady by that time, had suffered much more loss than my mother–one young brother to the Spanish Flu, later, her parents, a child, her husband.   I don’t think I believe in pre-destination, and yet I can certainly understand the comfort of it on a day like today, and one like tomorrow, and the next day too;  how do you get to work each morning if you have to worry whether you are making the right choice of train, car, seat, city, life?

So sorry for the suffering in Moscow.

Chocolate Frosting (Finally!)

March 28, 2010

Chocolate Frosting

The deliciousness of good chocolate frosting cannot be overrated.

I have not been a frosting fan for most of my life.  From early childhood, I was schooled in the art of dieting.  I think this resulted from two grandfathers dying fairly young of heart attacks.  My mother took these deaths very much to her own heart, and, in addition to inflicting margarine on us (back when it was still considered a foodstuff), was extremely negative about certain types of high-fat….toppings.

Certain layers of certain foods were to be automatically peeled before consumption.  I’m not just talking bananas here.  The two that come to mind were chicken skin and cake frosting.

I was a dutiful kid; so whenever we went to some fast food restaurant that served fried chicken (we’d never have this at home), I would follow my mother in the undressing of whatever breast came our way, (we were not allowed drumsticks and this was pre-nuggets), covering the flattened foil wrapping with every single scrap of salty brown crackle.

Frosting was generally cut off with a knife.  (My mother, who was a purist in word more than deed, would run her finger along the back of such a knife, and then shudder.)

I got the message.  For years, when I made cupcakes for my own children, I just sprinkled a little powdered sugar on them.  If frosting was required for a school event –you know those old-time frosted school events which, apparently, are no longer allowed, much less mandated–I would actually slather canned frosting on the cupcakes.  (Yes, the stuff could also double as spackle, but, given my prejudices, it hardly seemed worse to me than the real thing.)

Then, my family discovered Magnolia Bakery.   It was a dusty, extremely quiet, little shop back then with dappled linoleum floors and counters, and old-fashioned curved metal mixers.  It was mainly notable to us because of (i) the old-fashioned cake plates, with the Hirshchorn-shaped cylindrical glass covers, (ii) the old-fashioned aspect of the cakes beneath those covers (which looked nothing like the Italian pastries typical of Greenwich Village);  and (iii) the fact that it was right next door to a shop that sold parrots.

And then came Sex in the City, which I have to confess I’ve never seen, but which certainly changed the sleepy atmosphere of the Magnolia Bakery.  There were now lines; on weekend nights, these strained around the block.  My children (now teenagers with a whole new appreciation of cupcakes) and I stood in those lines.  We even bought the cookbook (More From Magnolia Bakery, by Alyssa Torrey.)

Ms. Torrey’s frostings are really very very good; especially the boiled flour and milk one used on the red velvet cake.

I still find the buttercreams too sweet.  One of the difficulties of making a buttercream-style frosting is getting it thick enough to both swirl and sit there, i.e. not drip.  This requires a fair amount of a dry ingredient which is typically powdered sugar.  But powdered sugar is hardly a neutral ingredient; the more you put in, the more cloying the frosting risks becoming(although at a certain point, there does seem to be a place where your tongue just shuts down, refusing to taste the extra sweetness.)

Our trick, (well, the trick of my daughter, a truly great cook) is to substitute another dry ingredient for some of the powdered sugar.  A great one, of course, is unsweetened cocoa powder.  We use it to cut the sugar allotment of the typical buttercream recipe almost in half.   That, and a little extra vanilla to enhance the chocolate (countering all childhood beliefs in the intense opposition of vanilla and chocolate), makes for a fudgy, swirly, not too sweet, frosting, that can almost be eaten on its own.  (Even by someone very well trained in maniacal frosting guilt.   Think antioxidents.)

Here’s a quick recipe.

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  • 4 cups (max) confectioners’ sugar

  • 2-4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix everything together, at your own speed (but with an electric mixer).

Makes enough for two-layer cake, or for the top of a single layer (with a bunch left over to apply at will.)

Ephemeral Everything

March 27, 2010

Coming off of good food, abundant wine, a birthday celebration (not mine), wondering why it is that living in the world is so difficult for many of us, so painful.

I should start off by saying that I didn’t experience much of that pain tonight; chopping, cooking, cleaning up; a lot of bending down to wipe up the floor–I tend to be a very fast cook, who both creates and cleans up a fair amount of overflow in a small and somewhat rudimentary kitchen (hey, this is New York City!  Counter space costs!)

Engagement is a great anodyne; busy-ness, work.  The problem one bumps into as one grows older, the wall one bangs one’s head against, is the knowledge that all this really does end sometime.  When young, most of us are insulated from that sense of fragility.  Except for those times that we are being melodramatic (and possibly manipulative), we don’t even truly believe that thwarted lives are possible for us, much less no life at all.   But as we age, we become conscious that people not only take wrong turns, they come to shocking terminal stops.   We actually know people, or at least know of people, whose lives are suddenly cut short, people for whom the question of whether they had the life they wanted is almost insulting, because they are fighting so hard for any life at all.We have a terrifying sense, as we age, that loss is not only possible, but inevitable.

Our culture tries very hard to insulate us from this knowledge.  Some seem to have a belief that the only thing Western medicine cannot save them from is malpractice.

I tell myself that the knowledge of life’s eventual loss should be energizing, activating.  (All that carpe diem business.)  Unfortunately, instead of listening to that kind of archetypical wisdom,  I  tend to be influenced by a guy I heard yelling out to his friend in a New York City parking garage.  “Hey you, come on!  Life’s too short to enjoy it!”

I would post a poem on this subject, but my computer has recently joined the ranks of the ephemeral.  (Perhaps I should say–the ranks of “no longer even ephemeral”.)  Accordingly, all previously written poems are now in a kind of digital purgatory.  Here’s hoping they will be released soon.

Amendments Republicans Didn’t Think Of

March 26, 2010

No Transfusions For Vampires

On Thursday, in the confusing process which I understand is required by our bi-cameral very-keen-on-procedure Congress, the Senate passed a budget reconciliation bill which allowed for the final passage of the new health care legislation.  In the process, more than forty amendments to the bill were proposed by Republican senators, including several from Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma;  perhaps the most colorful of these was an amendment prohibiting coverage of Viagra and other Erectile Dysfunction medications to convicted child molesters, rapists, and sex offenders.

Somehow one feels certain that the purpose of this type of amendment is to cast a shadow of malevolence on the benefits offered by the new legislation.  (There seems to be a desire to create a feeling that, without the amendment, the bill would operate as a kind of Americans With Disabilities Act for those covered by Meghan’s Law.)

Here are a few amendments that got dropped from the Republican list:

1.  No more than fifty (50) month-supply prescriptions per day may be covered for convicted narcotics offenders.

2.  No “herbal” supplements for potheads.

3.  No chiropractic coverage to W.W.E. hall of famer Quebecois Mad Dog Vachon unless an American passport and an original American birth certificate are provided.

4.   No acupuncture coverage for acrobatic Shaolin Monks temporarily visiting the U.S. from China.

5.   No acupuncture coverage to anyone permanently moved to the U.S. from China.

6.   Or Mexico.

7.  Or anywhere else.

8.  Including Hawaii.

7.  No rolfing for residents of California.

8.  No medical tattoo removal coverage for Jesse James.  Such expenses may be coverable for Michelle Bombshell McGee but on only on personal application.

9.  No blood transfusions for vampires unless named Bill Compton or Edward Cullen.  (Sorry, Eric.)

Blocking Writer’s Block – Post-Partum Embarrassment

March 25, 2010


Circle of hell for one's own work


Embarrassment is not so much of a problem when one is writing as when one has written. Shortly after the piece is more or less “done”, the excitement, the satisfaction, the engagement, of doing the work peters out.

Okay, sure, there’s a moment of “whew”.  Maybe even “wow.”  And then, like carefully-cut fruit turning brown around the edges, the whole thing seems  tawdry, sour, over-ripe.

This feeling often sets in around the time you start showing your work to others. When you glance at the piece through their imagined eyes, you wonder how you were ever satisfied.  You feel exposed, ridiculous.

It’s worse than seeing one’s self in a bad photo, in a brightly-lit mirror, at one’s worst angle.  When looking at a depiction of one’s physical self, feelings of inadequacy are often tempered by surprise, even disbelief—( Is that really what I look like?)  Even as one cringes, one’s image is so different from the self one imagines it hardly feels possible.  Besides that surprise, we are most of us well trained enough in the idea of people not being able to help their looks to have some grudging acceptance of our physical aspect.  (Other than of our fat, I suppose.)

A special circle of hell is saved for the sound of one’s own voice, either heard or read.

This hell, this embarrassment, can make it almost impossible for a writer to get his or her work out in the world.

Despite the daily appearance of blog, I really do have some problems with this.  Nonetheless (with typical “do as I say, not as I do” bravura), I’ll posit some suggestions:

1.  Collaborate.   Share the work process before your work is finished so that it’s less of a struggle to share it afterwards.  There are many different levels of collaboration, which may or may not include co-authorship.   The simplest may just be doing writing exercises with someone—writing at the same time as they are, then reading your writing aloud to each other.    (This is like taking your clothes off absolutely simultaneously with someone else.  Easier if you both pull down the pants at one time. )

The frigid sea (of exposure) also feels better if you hold hands with someone and run into the surf together.  Meaning, if you want to try to read in public fora—poetry readings or slams—go with a writing buddy first;  make yourselves both sign the sign-up sheet.  No turning back.  Clap loudly for your friend.

2.  Shut your eyes.  Get your piece as good as you can, send it into the world,  and then, if you can’t bear to face it again, don’t.  Don’t re-read it endlessly once you start circulating it (at least not for a while.)   If it’s published, and you can’t bear others to know, just don’t tell them.

3.  Understand that you are not your work.  It is, at most, a glimpse of your brain’s inner workings for one relatively short period of time;  a simulacrum of a synaptical dance.  If someone doesn’t like it, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you.  If someone reads it, it doesn’t mean that they actually know you.  Distance yourself from the content of the work;  distance yourself from the feelings of exposure.   This takes discipline.  Don’t wallow.

4.  Don’t worry that everything you do may not be your best work.  People’s taste run wide gamuts.  Sometimes you/they are in the mood for brown rice; sometimes you/they are in the mood for whipped cream;  sometimes for oranges.   (i.e. you can’t please all the people all the time;  actually,  you can’t even please some of the people all the time.   And maybe, well, you should worry a little less about pleasing. )

5.  Be happy that you have completed some work at all.  Always keep in mind how wonderful that feeling was when you first finished, how wonderful to have just slogged through.