Posted in A Day In the Life, Thoughts on Writing

The Summer of Belonging: Strippers, Poets and Omar’s Restaurant

My writing journey has been both long and short. By long, I mean I wrote here and there while marriage and a mortgage interrupted my dreams. I wrote stories from time to time that no one read, and on three different occasions, I surprised myself by getting published—once in a magazine about quilting and twice in newspapers. I started a blog and experimented with style and voice, eventually accumulating a hundred or so followers. But rarely during that time, did I consider myself a writer—even though I wanted to.

Coming into my sixties awakened me with an urgent fear. The years had caught up. If I didn’t dedicate myself to writing now, I never would, and it would become the great, sorrowful regret of my life. So I proclaimed to a small and select group of friends that I was going to write novels. I was sixty-three.

 In a year and a half, I wrote and finished three novels, and they were all rambling narratives with pretty prose and some exquisite descriptions that never got near a real story. In that same year and a half, I studied my ass off, apologizing for myself all the way. I didn’t know where to place a comma or how I was supposed to use a semicolon. I’d been a horrible student in school, a dropout in fact, who managed to pick up the pieces in midlife and finally earn a high school diploma as well as a college degree in my late thirties. Real writers, I thought, were good students, nerds who’d attended good colleges and loved the English language.

In the summer of my sixty-fifth year, all the pieces came together. I finished my fourth novel, and it was good, a real story that hung together. My blog accumulated three thousand followers that year, and I achieved the rookie writer’s holy grail: a contract with a New York City literary agent. In that same heady summer, I got my first paid job as a writer.

The Rogue Valley Messenger is a small newspaper, a freebie found on street corners and in grocery stores in and around Ashland, Oregon. Like so many times in my scrappy life, I faked knowing what I was doing. And it was the best fake-out ever. Interviewing folks for the lifestyle section of the paper, I quickly learned from my beyond-patient editor what was expected of me. And each month, I banged out a thousand or so words, receiving a check for twenty to thirty-five dollars for each article.

In the middle of the experience, I learned about the writing craft, yes, but more importantly, I began to see my own condition mirrored back to me in the people I interviewed and whose stories I then told. They would touch upon the my long-held beliefs of fears and self-doubt, and hearing their stories helped me reclaim a wild, completely imperfect part of myself. Writing for The Messenger was an act of realizing all the possibility and potential that I’d pushed aside in the name of unworthiness.

There were lots of articles, some of them better than others, but three stand out. The first was an interview with a burlesque performer who’d named herself Kat Wondergloom. She said she wanted a name that was part whimsy and part darkness.

I loved her story. I loved learning that burlesque is more than just a tassel-twirling bump and grind where women shed their clothing. During the interview, Kat told me the thing that helped her the most on her quest to become a burlesque artist was being adopted by a group of drag queens who schooled her in everything from makeup to just where to place those rhinestones.

And when I asked her how burlesque dancing was different from being a stripper, she laughed. “A lot more glitter and a lot less money,” she said. I understood that. So much of what I experienced in the world was just glitter.

Kat Wondergloom and I weren’t that very different from each other. She was a proud, independent woman, making her way in a world that wasn’t always kind, but she was doing it without apology. Kat would never get a formal invite to the #metoo movement, but in many ways, her proud sense of sexuality and her determination, I found, was every bit as liberating.

When I finished writing the article, I decided that maybe it was time for me to stop apologizing for my past and begin to fiercely embrace my present. Workshops and writing books brought me a long way toward becoming a writer, but Kat Wondergloom gave me the missing piece—you gotta believe in yourself and own what you do.

The second article that stands out was an interview with a poet who would soon be visiting the small university in my town. Richard Blanco had been Barak Obama’s second inaugural poet—the first Latino and the first gay man to hold such a prestigious honor. I was intimidated by his writing credentials and thrilled that I got to interview him.

I worked very hard on the questions I was going to ask him. I read two of his books before the phone interview and prepared for days. We had a good, lively conversation about the ordinary within the extraordinary, and I wrote it up. After my article was published, and Richard was in Ashland teaching, he surprised me by inviting me to coffee. We spent an hour talking about writers and writing in a local coffee shop. I learned that his work had always been influenced by the themes of belonging and asking the question of what and where home is.

I’ve lived most of my adult life with the sense that I must have gotten off the bus at the wrong stop. What I learned from Richard is that it’s human nature to want to explore the question of home and belonging. It’s not a flaw or a failure.

I only wrote for The Messenger for a year, and then my husband and I left our home in Ashland, moving to Austin, Texas. One of the last pieces I wrote for the publication wasn’t about a person, but about a place: Omar’s.

Omar’s was an old steakhouse built in the 1940s that hadn’t changed much since. It was the only piece I’ve ever written where I hated how the editors chopped it up. Honestly, I didn’t really write a solid newspaper piece about a restaurant—about the steak and the fish that they served, about the wait and bar staff, some of whom had been there a couple of decades or more. I couldn’t get out of my own way and be a professional, objective journalist.

Instead I let Omar’s inspire me as a storyteller. Across the street from Southern Oregon University, the place was frequented by writers, professors, and diehard locals who could recite the history of the restaurant which hadn’t changed its menu since the 1940s. When I sat down in the bar, I halfway expected Raymond Chandler to sit down next to me and buy me a drink. I got lost in the red, cracked, leather booths and the dark haze of the cocktail lounge with its bar carved with initials from patrons who didn’t want to be forgotten.

The steakhouse invaded my imagination, pinning me up against the wall by my throat. Because of that, I knew that a dolled-up dame had written the name “Omar’s” on the sky with one red fingernail. That became the neon sign illuminating the darkness under a blue moon, just above a post that says “To Klamath Falls.” I loved the dark, seedy feeling of it all, and instead of writing the newspaper article on steak, I wrote about how the grittiness of the place reminded me of a Raymond Chandler novel with hard-boiled detectives and blonde bombshells. And I have to wonder how many writers had sat in those booths and construed stories that fit perfectly against the backdrop of its lit noir images.

To say that the article about Omar’s received a major editing and a requested set of revisions by my managing editor is not the half of it. I had written, or rather pieced together, something that was part noir wannabe and part restaurant review. Still, it’s worth noting that I could see how everybody needs an Omar’s, a place that knows you and welcomes you when you need to eat or rest, a place where the filters are off. Omar’s underscored a truth about me: I love a good story.

As my husband and I got on the road for our move to Texas, I looked for the ghostly outline of the dolled-up dame who had drawn the sign with her fingernail against the sky. I hoped she’d be standing by the doorway of Omar’s as we drove by for the last time. I didn’t see her, but I heard her whisper this to me, Own it!

That steakhouse was the place that put the exclamation point on the best summer ever—strippers, poets, and Omar’s. And damn, if I hadn’t become a real writer, traipsing around in search of my material. Real stories. Imagined stories.  And the comfortable familiarity of being lost and looking for where I belonged.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Technology and the Death of Introspection

For a short while, everything stayed the same. We sat with our tea in the early morning hours, talking about the day stretching out before us. My husband delighted me with my favorite question. “So,” he would say, “Tell me what’s in your heart.” And I would sit quietly for a minute feeling and pondering before I answered. It was a lovely ritual, freely invoked among tea and the morning papers.

For a while I still read at night. Schooled on the principle that one’s writing is a direct reflection of the quality of one’s reading, I devoured Eudora Welty, Wally Lamb, Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. It was not unusual for me to read several books a month. I adored that Oprah Winfrey had a book club and for the first year, I read everything on her list.

But all of that was then, before the hand of technology grabbed our attention with a powerful grip of instant connection that we mistook for instant intimacy. Now, I have to discipline and train myself to wake up and NOT view Facebook, NOT look at my emails first thing. I grit my teeth some mornings as I carry my laptop up the stairs and into my office, where I open my current manuscript and look at the clock. Two hours. Go. And when I have finished writing, I am like the horse that cannot wait to get back to the barn. I open Facebook. Did anyone like what I posted? I fall into cat videos like a drunk stumbling gleefully  into another bar.

Measuring out my life in emails, I race into the self-imposed stress that technology hath wrought. Long ago and far away the memory of “tell me what’s in your heart,” has been replaced by business associates on the opposite end of the country who send communications to my husband, compelling him to reply in what used to be the quiet of early morning.

Over the weekend, as we drove back from a visit to Portland, I realized the slow death that consumed us, the underbelly of the digital beast. Raindrops hit the windshield and the wiper blades slid into rhythm. We put on Simon and Garfunkel– perfect for a rainy day. The words went like this:

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
because a vision softly creeping
left its seeds while I was sleeping
and the vision that was planted in my brain
still remains, within the sound of silence.

As the music of our youth allowed the flood gates of life past to open, I recalled how the words of Paul Simon had introduced me to the angst of introspection, an unraveling in the dark quietude that I would come to value.

Today there is no sound of silence within which to contemplate a life or even ask the question of who am I? All of that has been replaced by phones that ping messages, tweets, emails all hours of the day and night. The depth of answer as to who I am has been reduced to a selfie posted on Facebook and an unrelenting connection to WiFi. Look at me, it says: this is who I am. This is what I ate for dinner last night. These are all my “friends,” and not a drop of introspection to be found. How do you become a person without the frightening and courageous act of just being alone with yourself, sans gadgets and media?

Of this death I have to ask, what are the consequences of a life lived without the solitary acts of introspection, reflection and the quiet of contemplation? Is it that we become more like sheep? Everyone NEEDS an i-phone, a tablet, a Facebook page. This is the golden age of self-promotion. That’s how business is done. I know I cannot hang onto the past, but I do not wish to be consumed or lose the value that I long ago assigned to introspection.

The thing about the Paul Simon lyrics is that they harken to a time in my life when I was straddling the worlds of child and adult. Attached to that was a required amount of self-examination served up on a bed of grace-filled angst. I eventually grew into someone who enjoyed my own company, understood my flaws and my gifts and wasn’t afraid to break away from the herd, creatively, politically or emotionally. My psychology was not tied up in how many followers, friends or fans I had, but in how well I knew myself and was true to the self that I was discovering.

My generation had poets that modeled introspection and it was part of our right of passage into adulthood. So again, the question arises: what are the consequences of generations who have not known this process as part of their development? How do they summon and access the deeper resilience that life’s challenges inevitably require? How do they make the all-important distinction between their superficial inner voice that craves social media attention and the deeper, more still voice that speaks its truth in silence? How can a writer capture the state of the human story without first knowing the depths of their own story?

What we give up because of technology, we must learn to reclaim through the expression of the human heart, or our very human-ness is sure to perish. So, think about this before you answer: Tell me, what is in your heart?