Flying the Friendly Skies

I’m a nervous flier, but this condition came on slowly during my life. I remember liking to fly when I was a kid. I’d get all sorts of privileges like having my stuffed bear ride in the seat next to me, little plastic wings affixed to my shirt or dress, and unlimited soda. We flew frequently when my father was in the military, but when he got out during my teen years, I didn’t fly for about ten years.

Instead of gradually building up my flying skills after that amount of no-fly time, I found myself facing an eight-hour-long international flight to Italy on my first trip there. Suddenly I was petrified and envisioned all sorts of crash scenarios. I made it onto the plane and sat in a ball of fear for about an hour, but it was too hard to sustain that kind of tension and I gradually relaxed. After that trip, I found myself flying about once a year, and though it wasn’t my favorite thing to do, I made it through. I don’t particularly like flying, but I do like to travel, so something had to give.

Me scared to death before my first flight after ten years of not flying.

Then 9/11 happened, and instead of a little nervousness, I started experiencing full-blown panic attacks. Part of the problem, I think, is the amped-up security. It seems like every time I fly, a new safety procedure has been instituted and each one of these precautions reminds me of all the dangers today’s travelers face. Shoes have to come off because of shoe bombs, liquids have to be minuscule and separated out to make sure they’re not the makings for bombs, and now there’s a full-body X-ray to make sure we’re not stuffing bombs up our orifices.

For several years after 9/11, I was terrified to fly. Being stuck in that circular tube full of people (often uncomfortably full) and recycled air was my idea of torture, but my family was far-flung, as well as the other places that I wanted to travel to. Once I took Amtrak from New York to Chicago, and the twenty-three-hour trip was hell for the last eight hours. I kept a detailed hour-by-hour log of the trip, and by the end I was a raving lunatic. It also took me a day to uncurl my body from the sitting position I had been in for so long during my train travels, which took precious time from my vacation schedule. I decided never again after that. I was going to have to get used to flying again.

A couple things did really help me with my phobias. A friend of mine went to school and trained as an airline pilot, and when I told her about my flight phobias, she broke down what happens in a crash and how to survive it if at all possible. First off, she said, always try to get a seat ahead of the wings. The gas tanks are below the wings and that’s where the fire will erupt during a crash, flowing backward and flash-frying everybody in back of the tanks. Check—I always do that now. Second, she said to always know where your exits are and to physically count how many rows you are from the exits. If the plane crashes, there will be so much smoke that it will be hard to see and the emergency lighting might fail. I now do this immediately after sitting down. It’s funny how preparing for the absolute worst can make somebody feel better, but sometimes it works out that way.

Sherman Alexie is another nervous flier, and his tactic is to watch the flight staff since they’re the ones who will know first if something’s up. He said that the minute they’re up from their seats, he knows everything’s all right, and he keeps a close eye on them throughout the flight to gauge how the plane is doing.

I’ve had a prescription for Xanax in the past, but when I take one of those pills, I feel like a zombie for the rest of the day or longer, which can eat up too much time in a packed vacation schedule. Now, I’m doing my traveling with a bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy. I like its cheerful yellow label, and I do actually feel a little mellower after I dose myself with a few drops. I don’t care if it’s a placebo as long as I’m not spinning into the stratosphere, so panicky and anxious that I feel like I’m going to flip dimensions.

My sister, who’s not a nervous flier, after we were bumped up to first class. Notice the pin that she asked for.

I wonder, though, if it will help after my last flying experience. I visited my family in Iowa a few days ago, and the flights there were no problem. I had that familiar panicky sensation in the pit of my stomach on the way back, though. I passed through security with no problem in Moline. The staff there was professional and cheerful, getting me through security with little agitation. The plane between Moline and Chicago is tiny with a single row of seats on one side and two-seaters on the other side. I was just grateful it wasn’t a propeller plane. We took off with no problem, and that’s always something I carefully watch. My pilot friend told me that’s when the majority of accidents happen—during takeoffs and landings.

It was meant to be a short flight—only thirty minutes. As we made our descent and were within kissing distance of the trees—a point when I’m always convinced we’re safe—instead of feeling the ka-thud of wheels hitting the tarmac and the sudden braking as the plane slowed down, I noticed that we were ascending again. I looked around puzzled at other passengers, and the man near me, who had been regaling a college student about his business trip to China during the flight, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

I couldn’t see the flight attendant in her jump seat from where I was sitting and was unable to read the expression on her face. Once we were fully in the air and wheeling around Chicago, the pilot came on and informed us that there had been a plane in front of ours, but there wasn’t enough room on the runway to land. This was all relayed in a very conversational and friendly manner, like I was chatting with somebody at a bar. Then he signed off with “Peace,” and I felt like my life was in the hands of some surfer dude, not the coolheaded professional that I wanted to envision my pilot being.

I tried googling what I thought was a near accident when I got home, but the last time something serious enough to warrant the news happened at O’Hare was in May. Apparently, this running out of runway must happen more often than I think, which will now give me something else to worry about with my flight phobia.

Not Enough Life for Too Many Book Series

It seems that lately every time I pick up a book I get mired in a book series—this has happened inadvertently with the last two books I’ve stumbled upon. I finished Camille Läckberg’s The Stonecutter last week, a very satisfying mystery, but when I later went to look up background information on Läckberg, I found out that The Stonecutter is a book midway through her Fjällbacka series. I put the first two series books on hold at the Brooklyn Public Library, but I know it’s wishful thinking believing that I’ll get to these novels before their due dates. On my bedroom floor is the new Jo Nesbø book from the Harry Hole series to review, the first of the George R.R. Martin series, and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, a book I just picked up that I discovered is the first part of a series.

I’m not surprised by detective series; this is part of a long-standing tradition started by the originators of the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. And even Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of his Sherlock Holmes character and tried to kill him off, but his readers wouldn’t let him. I am weary of seeing this trend in other things that I’m reading, though. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a young-adult coven novel that I’m about one hundred pages into, and I just found out that it’s a series book from the friend who gave it to me. Instead of joyously ripping through the book as I had at the start, I find myself going through the pages more slowly and evaluating the characters. Do I like them enough? Am I willing to commit myself to these people for nine hundred-plus pages?

Writers seem to be going more toward series for monetary reasons and to guarantee book contracts. I went to see British writer Glen Duncan read from his book Talulla Rising about a female werewolf, of which there are far too few stories, in my opinion. While sitting there listening, I discovered that Talulla Rising is second in a werewolf trilogy, and I’m leery of picking up the second book without having read the first, afraid I’ll have missed important parts of the story. When Duncan was asked whether he intended for his first werewolf book The Last Werewolf to be part of a series, he said, “I just wrote the book in the hope that somebody would pick it up. I told my agent at the time to pitch it as a trilogy, because well, if somebody was going to be dumb enough to buy one…” He meant this jokingly, but I really think the book industry is pushing this following the popularity of the Harry Potter series and others, hoping that lightning will strike two or five or eighteen more times.

Once Duncan’s trilogy pitch was accepted, he said, “I had not mapped out books two and three really in any way…after I finished the first book. That was sort of hastily scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet when the publisher got around to asking what this trilogy was going to be. I had the sense that it could be a trilogy, but it wasn’t until I actually made a deal, a three-book contract, that I kind of sat down in a sense of shock and thought, Oh right, now I have to write two more of these.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to you, Talulla Rising. I can handle a comic book series where the reading time is far shorter, and a movie that is part of a series is usually only a two- or three-hour time commitment. I can do a few TV series, but I have to be choosy with those. I don’t like to follow more than two or three series at a time. A book, though, is a much larger time commitment—just one can take twenty or more hours to read. I can usually get through a book a week, and if I were to follow through on all of the series books that I’ve picked up this year, the rest of the year’s reading would be planned out for me with no room for surprise. And I don’t want a fabulous character like Erica Falck or Patrik Hedstrӧm to take up residence in my head and then become like an annoying neighbor who won’t leave.

Get Out of My Car!

Subways are one of the last places on earth safe from cell phones—for now. I hear the tunnels are going to be rigged up for satellite service soon. I book about an hour of my time on subways daily, and with all of the white noise and people minding their own business, it’s usually an enjoyable part of my day. I can get a lot of work done on the subway when I get a seat. I plug in my iPod, open my notebook, and start writing. Every once in a while, though, my private time is intruded upon.

Today it was the subway dancers—a duo that’s been haunting the Q line the past couple of weeks. I was in a half-empty subway car yesterday when the pair came in and judged the car not at a capacity where they would dare deign to dance for us—thank God. I didn’t get off so lucky today. The dance team came into the car, checked both adjoining cars to see if there were either more people or cops, and then started loudly clapping and the call and response that is now de rigueur for subway dance performances. “What time is it, folks?” “Showtime.” “What time is it?” “Showtime.”

Now, this back and forth is between the two performers, not the performers and those forced to be the audience. The performers will have their boom box cranked to the highest level, and my poor little iPod can’t compete, not even if I’m playing Judas Priest. The dancers will tap people on the shoulders who are near poles and have them move to the side, regardless of whether they paid $2.50 for their rides or not. This is so they can move freely through the car using all available poles and railings. And then the dancing begins.

About six months ago, there was a trio going through the cars who had co-opted stripper pole moves and used that as part of their routines. It was fun once or twice, but I started to become resentful when it was the same thing day after day. Today’s duo had the hat trick—“Watch the hat, folks. Watch the hat”—and again, I’ve seen it lots, and it wasn’t that impressive the first time around. If you’re going to rip my attention away from something I want to be doing, at least be original. I suppose I should just count myself lucky that I got the dancers and not junkies trying to hustle their next fix or subway preachers telling me all about Jesus and my sins.

I hunker down and wait for the performance to end, sure I’m going to get a foot in the face as the dancers clamber up and down the subway car’s poles and rails, using them as acrobatic and trapeze equipment. Afterward, they go up and down the subway car soliciting “donations.” Usually this is when I close my eyes and pretend that I’m listening to my iPod, which has been drowned out up until now, unless it’s been a pretty spectacular performance. If I’ve seen something good, then I give up the Sacagawea coin that I carry around in my MetroCard wallet for just that purpose.

These two kids finish soliciting, then start talking about how lame the audience in our car was before moving on to the next car. This pisses me off. It’s not like I’m at the Metropolitan Opera with a hundred-dollar ticket to see a performance of La Bohème. I did not pay to see a secondhand hat routine, and I do not appreciate being critiqued as an audience member, especially when I wasn’t looking to be one. It makes me wish one of the harsh reviewers from one of those dance reality shows, like So You Think You Can Dance, was there and could take these two down a peg with their forced routine and bad use of props.

The crap routine almost makes me nostalgic for the L train and some of its crazy performers. You’re not really living until you’ve stood during primetime rush-hour traffic in a subway car with a mariachi band playing around you, as my friend Sarah found out when she came to visit me her first time in New York. Another favorite was a guy I would see about once a month who had made himself a fake horse out of a bedsheet splattered with painted-on spots. He would ride his horse while singing “La Bamba” and sweat heavily during his routine.

Sarah and the mariachi band on the L train.

What the L train was most famous for, though, was panhandlers—usually younger kids with lots of tattoos and piercings, so I’m pretty sure I know where that money was going. The best thing I ever saw was when a social worker confronted a frequent panhandler on the L line, a woman with a high annoying voice and the scabby look of a meth head, who would hector subway riders with, “When I was in a position to give, I always did. Somebody please help me get something to eat.” This man got up and said he would take her down to the food stamp office to file for emergency food stamps; he’d even help her fill out the application. She stopped immediately, looked down at the ground, and silently got off at the next subway stop. From there, she got on the next subway car and started hustling again, and I was relieved to finally get some peace.

Save Me from This Styx Earworm

I never knew there was an actual term for when a certain song gets stuck in your head until I edited a sci-fi mystery story about such a thing. The proper term is earworm, and I’ve got a very bad case of earworm right now. This one is a Styx earworm, a medley of about four to five songs, that I’ve been afflicted with since seeing the band in concert with Ted Nugent about two weeks ago.

I wouldn’t normally go to a Styx, Ted Nugent show—neither have ever been particular favorites of mine—but a writer I know from Billboard magazine was assigned to review the show in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and she was looking for some company during the road trip from New York. It seemed like it could be an interesting experience and it was free, so I signed up. The possibility of seeing Ted Nugent’s crazy in action was too enticing to pass on.

The road trip was fun, and it was amazing to roll into Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which gave all appearances of being a teeny rural town until we stumbled upon the Sands Casino, where the show was to take place. The casino looked out on an old factory that reminded me of the one in the Lorax and tried to use some of this old structure in their building design. It reminded us of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining with its long hallways that inevitably ended in us getting lost.

We got checked into our room and just made the opening of the show, where I watched Ted Nugent go through about three or four guitars onstage. He’s a great performer, and in between songs he would let his crazy rip, which delighted me: “You can’t do this in France!” “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of freedom.” In between bands, I stepped out in the smokers’ courtyard and eavesdropped on conversations about Mitt Romney, UFOs, and guns that I’m not usually privy to.

I made it back in time for the Styx show that was starting up with trippy graphics flashing by on the screen behind the band. I was familiar with nearly all of the songs that they played and was surprised to find that I knew almost all of the lyrics word for word. I was never really a Styx fan. I liked their music all right, but I didn’t idolize them like I did, say, Michael Jackson after he put out the Thriller album. The radio was always on, though, when I was growing up. I can remember living in Germany, and when I woke up and got ready for school, the radio would be dialed to the Department of Defense’s radio station. It would still be playing when I got home from school, and during those years, I passively absorbed the Top Forty hits of the early eighties. So much so that I’ve somehow unintentionally memorized the lyrics to songs that I didn’t even like so much. I’m scared to find out what else I’ve got rolling around in my head from that time period.

After the show and seeing a local band perform elsewhere in the casino, I had no problems getting to sleep and crashed hard. I made it back to New York okay and everything seemed fine until that night when I tried to go to sleep and the lyrics to “Lady” started floating through my head—“You’re my lady…”—over and over again. The Styx earworm had struck. The next several days I was accosted in no particular order by “Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me”; “I’ve got too much time (clap, clap) on my hands”; and of course, “You’re my lady…” My old college roommate used to say that singing the chorus to the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” would cure any earworm, but for the first time ever, that, too, has failed me. I’m going on two weeks with this particular earworm and no relief in sight.

Styx, what have you done to me? I think I’m the victim of some sort of subliminal hypnosis.

A Bushwick Ghost Story

When we were shown the apartment that we are now renting, it was a disaster. There were rice and beans moldering in a pot on the stove. One bedroom had some half-empty forties in it, a stained mattress on the floor, and one of those huge toddler-killing TVs; the other was full of old-lady clothes and had a ghost of a powdery sachet scent to it. We were told that the woman who used to live in the apartment could no longer take care of herself and so she had been moved to a nursing home. We still get mail for her sometimes—Florinda Comrie, a perfectly beautiful name—usually things from the Catholic Church or old lady magazines full of things like slankets, sticks with grabby ends for pulling up socks, and mysteriously disguised sex toys because, hey, grannies want to have orgasms too.

Lately, though, I’m wondering if Florinda left so easily. Since we’ve moved into our apartment, we’ve been plagued with bad pipes. We’ve had a steam pipe burst twice in the kitchen—the same pipe—and the pipe in the bathroom burst once. Each time this has turned into an emergency where our maintenance guy has to shut down heat to the building, and we’re lucky nobody had been in the particular room when the pipe burst. This was the kind of steam heat that could flash-fry a cat or human, causing serious burns.

The situation is starting to remind me of the ghost we left in Bushwick. When Kristi and I first moved to New York, we were on a strict budget and could afford only the bare minimum in rent, which still seemed like way too much for housing. We ended up with a largish, two-bedroom railroad apartment at 393 Bushwick Avenue, right across the street from the Bushwick projects. What we noticed right away was not so much the crime, but our strange entryway. The apartment door opened up into a dining room/kitchen and bathroom, and these rooms were strangely tilted. I guess this was a common New York phenomenon because a friend at work told me, “Wait until you bake a cake.”

In the kitchen/bathroom area I noticed right away that things would tip over and move very easily. It wasn’t uncommon to be sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee and then hear a bang come from the bathroom. I’d go in and find all the shampoo and conditioner bottles tipped over or that the toothpaste had fallen off the sink. I always attributed this to the strange tilt of the front two rooms in the apartment. Sometimes the cats would come into the kitchen and just stare transfixed at the front door, as if they saw something there, and they would meow at nothing.

Our old kitchen on 393 Bushwick Avenue.

Once, not long after we moved in, two NYPD cops came to the door looking for the man who used to live there. They showed me his picture and gave me his name and asked me a lot of questions about our next-door neighbor, a skinny gay guy studying to be a teacher, who so did not fit the description of who they were looking for. After that, I noticed these large dents on the outside of our front door, as if somebody had been hammering on it, trying to beat the door down in order to get in. It really made me wonder who had lived there before us.

So things continued to move around in the front rooms of our apartment, especially if me or my sister were agitated, but I blamed this on the tilt and the idea that once something starts to go wrong everything goes wrong. And then something really scary happened. Kristi had gone home to visit my family in Iowa, and I was staying in the apartment all by myself. I stayed up until midnight, and then went to bed. There was nothing unusual about this—it was my typical workday routine. I was lying in bed about to drift off to sleep when I heard footsteps above me from the ceiling. Our apartment was on the top floor, but there was access to the roof from a skylight in the stairwell, so I thought it was one of the neighbors. A little annoying, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

I turned over and tried to sleep again, but then I heard a woman screaming, “Stop it! Stop it! Don’t come near me!” I really freaked out and ran out to the stairwell to see what in the hell was going on. There was nothing there. I walked over to the skylight that allowed access to the roof and saw that it was closed and padlocked. Once I was back in the apartment, I piled chairs and every other bit of available furniture in front of the door. In the morning I laughed at myself and chalked the whole thing up to an overactive imagination.

It was after Kristi got poked by the ghost that we realized we had something going on in the apartment. We were watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy in our kitchen when Kristi said, “Ow!” and started looking around.

“What?” I asked.

She said something poked her and thought it was one of the cats, but they were nowhere around.

Soon after that, Kristi had a dream. She said that in the dream she was an abused Latina woman, and she went into our bathroom where she saw herself in the mirror. The bathroom was painted a pale blue and pink, and it was her favorite room in the apartment because it locked and she could get away from the man who was abusing her. Kristi thought that this woman was our ghost, and if the bathroom was painted the same as how she remembered it, maybe the ghost wouldn’t be so upset and would stop poking and moving things.

I’m not crazy about baby blue and pink but I do love the Virgin of Guadalupe, so Kristi said she would paint the bathroom with a Virgin of Guadalupe theme. Kristi had to scrape the paint on the door frame to get down to the original wood, and she called me over to take a look shortly after she started. There, under layers and layers of white paint, she had found the original colors of the bathroom—a baby blue and pink in almost the exact shades that we had picked out for redecorating.

Kristi’s Virgin of Guadalupe mural in our bathroom at 393 Bushwick Avenue.

After Kristi painted her masterpiece, we did notice a decrease in objects moving around, but every once in a while the ghost would make her presence known, almost as if to say, “Hey guys, I’m still here!”

Sloppy Joes and Jiffy Pop

When I was younger, I was assigned a cake that I supposedly loved by my parents and that cake appeared every year for my birthday. Each of my parents’ children had this in our family, and I almost think it was a way for my parents to keep their kids straight, their personalities.

For many years, my designated cake was angel food, and after I turned about twelve, it turned into cheesecake with cherry pie filling on top. One year I ate three pieces, and it made me vomitously sick. I didn’t like cherry cheesecake anymore, and even more, I didn’t like what it represented. I wanted to become a sophisticated, urban professional, and cheesecake from a mix with cherry pie filling on top did not represent that to me. I wanted to be crème brûlée or a pear tart.

I moved to Portland, Oregon, in my early twenties—more than 1,500 miles away from my parents—and it was exhilarating. I was becoming the independent, hip person I thought I should be, hanging out with people in the band scene, who were cooks in bars during the day or on nights they weren’t playing.

After not seeing my family for four months, I went home for the holidays, and they showed me love with the old family favorites that my new friends in Portland would never understand: sloppy joes and popcorn, Shake N Bake pork chops. And my mother brought home a package of cheesecake mix and a can of cherry pie filling, wanting to treat me, though it wasn’t my birthday. She wanted to mix the cheesecake up for me, but I said I was too full, I would have to skip it on this visit.

Mom’s Shake N Bake pork chops

 

I had too many presents to fit into the luggage I had brought with me, so my mother unearthed a sky-blue hard-shell Samsonite suitcase circa 1973 that my family had been using since I was a kid. While I was getting ready to go back home to Portland, she packed up my presents and “a few other things,” she said.

After my flight into PDX, I went to pick up my luggage at the carousel and found the other passengers looking on with disgust and puzzlement as they picked up their suitcases and bags, most of which were dusted with a fine, yellowish powder. Weird, I thought, and looked for my bags. Then I spied a can of cherry pie filling rolling along the metal panels of the carousel with a thunk, thunk, thunk. My stomach dropped. A few rotations later, and there was the Samsonite suitcase laying open like a butterfly. It had opened when it hit the conveyor belt, exploding the box of cheesecake mix that my mother had tucked into my luggage. I grabbed that can of pie filling, my other bags, and the exploded suitcase and ran for a cab.

The Cockroach Wars, Part I

I’ve got the feeling that everybody has to deal with this problem at some time in their life, but lately it seems like cockroaches have launched a personal vendetta on me.

Kristi and I have been pretty lucky in our apartment so far. There were a few times when we first moved in that we saw a couple of roaches. We bought some bait traps at the Stop & Shop, and bang, the problem was solved. This year, though, beginning in about January, we’ve had cockroaches in our kitchen, and the bait traps aren’t working on them.

Of everything in the bug kingdom, I think I find the cockroach the most loathsome, and I suppose it’s because of the associations that come with cockroaches. Ants are portrayed as industrious team players, spiders are crafty, but cockroaches are seen as just plain dirty.

Our kitchen was being taken over by the small German cockroaches, their brown, shiny bodies skittering away when a light was turned on. We researched roaches on the Internet, and at first dusted all the cracks on our counter with boric acid. The things weren’t dying off quickly enough, though. We scrubbed down our cabinets with bleach and enforced a strict no-dirty-dishes policy, but the little bastards still kept coming. I read that after cutting off the roaches’ food and water supply, it can still take months to wipe them out completely because they will start cannibalizing each other. Fabulous.

Kristi decided that enough was enough and got a hold of some roach foggers. It was time to bomb our kitchen to kingdom come. She came up with the idea of putting plastic over the kitchen doorway and staple-gunning the tarp in place. This doubly functioned to keep us and our kitties safe from the poison and to prevent the roaches from escaping it.

We removed all the dishes, blew out the pilot light, and Kristi put the fogger in the middle of the kitchen. Once it had been set off, Kristi sealed off the doorway, and we started watching an episode of Buried Alive with the worst cockroach infestation ever:

 

My skin was crawling afterward, and Kristi went to the sealed-off doorway to check on the fogger’s progress. She called me in to see the bodies of about forty or so roaches on the plastic tarp; they had died trying to escape. We watched another show before going to bed, and I periodically went into the hallway to view those dead bodies, torturing myself.

The next day we killed a few slow-moving roaches, big, hardy ones that had only been stunned by our napalm-like fogger. For the most part, though, the problem seemed contained.

And then they came back with a vengeance, appearing in places we’d never seen them before. We even got a few of what I call the dinosaur roaches. These are the huge roaches that live in the basement of our apartment building—they’re so big I swear they make noise when they move, like tap dancers. Now that the weather’s nice, they like to sun themselves on the side of the building like insectile iguanas, and if a window is open, they’ll pop in for a visit. We’ve been visited by this particular specimen twice this week.

We bought an electronic device, the Pest Offense, which is supposed to scramble their brains and send all roaches, mice, ants, etc., packing. The smudgy instructions said to give it a week and that the problem may become worse before it gets better. This advice sounds like something out of a fortune cookie, but I’m slowly waiting, hoping that nothing like this happens:

The Exorcist at 80

During a mini–family reunion many years ago, my mother’s side of the family piled into cars and pickup trucks to go to the nursing home where my great-grandmother lived. When we got there, my great-grandma was still laying down for her nap, and we had to mill around in the common room waiting for her.

I had worked in a nursing home during high school and my first few years of college so I knew what to expect. Nursing homes are all about routine, getting up and laying down. The days are built around that and three meals, which are generally the most exciting things going on during the day. The conversation can go on for a whole hour between roommates, discussing what had been eaten for dinner.

I sat down in the TV/common room for a good, long wait, knowing the lifting, diapering, and denture scrubbing that would go on before my great-grandmother appeared. I can’t remember what was on the TV before the creepy intro music of The Exorcist came on, but this little old lady was just ecstatic when she heard it and pulled her purple chair up close to the TV, cooing, “Oh, The Exorcist. This is a really good one. It’s scary.”

She rose pretty high on my old-lady-idol list right there, because that’s exactly what I aim to be: eighty and watching The Exorcist. My mom had her camera out to take snapshots of her grandma, and I begged her, “Mom, please, please, please, take a picture of this.” She did, and in one of those moments of right-on timing, she got the nursing home residents gathered around the old-school TV set just as the title flashed for the movie. It’s one of my all-time favorite pictures, and I’ll be forever grateful to my mother who’s indulged my quirks since birth. Actually, she probably gave them to me.

Heavy Metal Memories, or Being a Lady in the ’80s

One of the great things about being a military brat is the ability to transform yourself when you move somewhere else. A lot of people live in the same place for all of their elementary, middle, and high school years, and they might get pigeonholed for a few standout events that they didn’t even intend. Then they’re forever known as the brain, the athlete, or the burnout. With the military, my sister and I were able to make ourselves over every couple of years or so because we would move to a place where nobody knew us. Nobody had ever met us; it was a clean slate.

I think my favorite metamorphosis happened, though, when my dad was out of the military. I was a freshman in high school and so shy and awkward that I could go for days without speaking. I wrote poetry that rhymed and hung out in the art room during lunch painting so I didn’t have to interact with others. I owned a pastel-pink sweater and wore it proudly.

Now, my younger sister, Kristi, was in junior high and having a hard time with school authorities, who thought she was on drugs (she wasn’t). She was into metal, had a thing for Blackie Lawless, and wore leopard-print spandex with her hair dyed black and cut in a Joan Jett shag. Her world revolved around music, and the heights of ecstasy came when she was able to go to concerts.

My parents were pretty liberal, but they had their limits—one was Kristi could not go to metal concerts by herself. My mother accompanied her to a few, but I imagine nothing can be more embarrassing than having your mom in tow at a Mötley Crüe concert. That’s how I came into the picture. Kristi wanted to go to a KISS concert but without Mom and Dad, so she leaned on me. It wasn’t too hard to convince me. Concert tickets were still pretty cheap then, running around $20, which I could easily afford with my babysitting money.

Before we went to the concert, Kristi insisted on dressing me. She said I would look out of place, so I let her. She ratted my virgin hair, so thin it couldn’t hold a bobby pin properly; did my makeup with lots of black eyeliner; and dressed me in some of her clothes—a red-and-black striped shirt, black tank top, black spandex, and black high-heeled boots left over from my Madonna Desperately Seeking Susan phase. I was a woman transformed and felt completely weird and freaked out. It was like I was in a costume. I never knew my hair could go so high.

Waiting on line to go through the metal detectors, I got pissed at Kristi as I surveyed the crowd. Barely anybody was dressed like us; they wore jeans and T-shirts and looked comfortable. They could blend. Me, I was now more than six feet tall with my high-heeled boots and teased hair, and so … glittery. People stared and I hated it. Once we cleared the metal detectors, Kristi ditched me to hit the floor, telling me that was the best place to be because you could get up close.

I was mad. I wanted to hide in the bleachers and just get the whole concert over with. I went and picked out a seat all by my lonesome, sat down with my arms crossed, and just glowered, hating everybody. Now, usually when I pulled my pissed teen routine, everybody just ignored me. Not this time. This time it seemed like people were afraid of me, giving me wary glances, and though the place was packed, I had a semicircle of space around me until the last minute. And even then, rather than ignoring me and plunking themselves down like they usually did, people asked me first. “Excuse me, miss”—gesturing toward the seats—“are those empty? Are you waiting for your friends?”

I think I shrugged my shoulders, afraid to speak, but inside, I thought, Holy shit! People are afraid of me. This is genius! A transformation came over me: I sat up taller, I straightened my shoulders, and when the band came on, I stood up with everybody else and stayed on my feet the whole night. It was cathartic seeing these loud bands, knowing the lyrics and being able to sing out loud without worrying about anybody commenting on my off-key voice, and having beer spilled on me. I liked Gene Simmons with his tough-guy look but not Paul Stanley so much with his idiotic stage patter between songs. He said the band had been in Madison, Wisconsin, the night before, the dairy state, and he could tell because all the girls had huge breasts. Immediately that set off a douche bag alert, and I hated him for the rest of my metal days. Gene Simmons was a little more reserved back then. Had he opened his mouth, I’m sure I would have hated him too.

After that, I had my metal metamorphosis. I liked the music because it was angry for the most part, which was how I felt inside. I loved the fashion associated with metal because it set me apart. I already felt like a freak, but putting that on display made me become braver than I would have ever believed. My hair went from blonde to red, then redder and redder, and high—how high I would tease it. And the wardrobe was pretty cheap. From thriftier times in our family, my sister and I had learned how to use scissors and a needle, and we were able to transform plain T-shirts to cropped tops and so on, though Kristi was always better at it than me. She had a pair of artfully frayed jeans and had sewn a snakeskin scarf in as a back panel. How I coveted them. Of course, my ass was always an inch bigger than hers so I could never borrow them.

 

I Feel a Character Coming On; Time to Make a Notebook!

I always have about three notebooks going at any one time: a tiny one (palm sized) for taking notes and making lists and schedules; a medium-sized one for blog entries or ideas, articles, all my rough drafting for nonfiction writing; and another medium-sized notebook that’s a little bit thicker for my journal. These notebooks have come to feel like an extension of me, and I put a lot of effort into picking them out and decorating them.

I’ve gone through stages where I liked certain notebook brands—there was a quad-ruled spiral notebook that I favored in college with green-tinted pages. I could make these notebooks last forever with my cramped, microscopic writing, and I still find those written-out pages to be a thing of beauty. These days, though, I like Clairefontaine and Moleskine notebooks because they come with quad paper (a requirement for me) that’s thick enough to take fountain pen ink without bleeding through to the next page. The Moleskine notebooks are a bit stiff and formal, and I find I have to dress them up a bit, break them in, before I can commit to writing in them.

Along with my usual three notebooks, sometimes I have a fourth when I’m working on a novel, and there’s quite an intimate ritual involved when I make one of those.

I’ve been using origami paper for decorating recently. I’m attracted to the bright colors, the tiny three-inch shape of the paper, and the memories behind it. I’ve been obsessed with origami for most of my life. When I was little, maybe five or six, my mother showed me and my sister Kristi how to fold cranes out of sparkly silver wrapping paper. I’ve always loved paper and drawing, but to be shown a way to make something three-dimensional out of paper—that was revolutionary. And maybe that’s why I chose to decorate my notebook for The Foot Book with origami paper—after all, I’m trying to make my character a three-dimensional person.

While crafting this particular notebook, it reminded me of the opening scene from Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (probably my favorite of the whole series), where the main character Kristen keeps herself awake by crafting a replica of the house that she sees in her dream. I chose a humble composition book for this notebook, and shockingly, the paper is lined.

The first thing I do is number the pages—just in case something gets torn out or I get another idea and turn the notebook upside down to work on something else. When I’m deep in a project, my notebook can start to look like football diagrams so it’s good if I have page numbers to refer to. Then there’s my favorite part—scissoring, deciding where everything should go, and gluing. Finally, to preserve my notebook design from coffee rings and cat slobber, I use clear adhesive tape that’s an inch and a half thick to tape over my glued-down cutouts. Shiny!

Another thing I’ve started doing since the iPod revolution began is to create a playlist of all the songs that remind me of my character or the story that I want to tell. One of my first choices for my character Maggie was CSS’s “City Grrrl.” I’m always humming this now.

I can’t listen to music while I’m doing the direct writing, but when I’m typing it up later or doing some light revising, I like to listen to the playlist. It’s a work in progress, and I’m constantly adding songs or deleting them while the novel progresses. Also, sometimes when I write myself into a corner or I’m psyching myself up to write a big scene, I’ll take a long walk around Prospect Park and listen to the playlist, trying to think through something.

So now I have my notebook, and interesting things are starting to creep in. Like this jotted on one side, and I have no idea now what it was about: “I will kill on Monday! Kill!”