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Devotion: Why I Write/Book Review

shoppingDevotion: Why I Write
Patti Smith
Yale University Press 2017

A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.

In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, shopping-1.jpegSmith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.

Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.

This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!”  We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”

The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.


The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

Another one of my seasonal posts:

The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

crispy-panko-potato-latkes-16According to my friend Rita, the invention of the blender spelled disaster for the potato latke. She insists that the blood dripping from our grandmothers’ knuckles as they grated the potatoes is what made their latkes so delicious.

My friend Larry swears that skimping on oil will produce an inferior latke; he fills the pan with three inches, which he regularly replenishes. He admits this makes for “an ongoing battle with grease,” but says it’s worth the fight.

My father used to criticize my mother’s latkes for lack of salt, and added it by the spoonful to his pancake batter. I had a cousin who reduced the amount of matzo meal to a scant two tablespoons. My sister adds flour. Martha Stewart uses scallions rather than grated onion in hers.

The point is, no two latkes are alike. I should not have been surprised, then, when my daughter Stacy, grown and with a kitchen of her own, had definite ideas about potato latkes. Thus, when we cooked together last Chanukah, conflicts surfaced as soon as she lined up the ingredients. which included a six-ounce bottle of vegetable oil. I immediately prepared to go to the store for more oil.

“We’re going to use more oil than that?” she asked, incredulous. I should mention that Stacy is a thin vegetarian who buys only organic produce and shops in health food stores. Using a large amount of oil in any dish is anathema to her. Ignoring her horror-stricken face, I went out and bought a half gallon.

When I returned, Stacy was putting potatoes through a food processor, from which they emerged shaped like tiny french fries. Horrified by their texture, I politely asked for a blender on the pretense that we’d finish faster if we both made the batter, and used it to grate my potatoes, onions and eggs.

When we got to the frying stage, all hell broke loose. Stacy poured in just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. She was about to lower a spoonful of batter into it when I grabbed her wrist.

“You can’t fry latkes in that little bitty oil,” I insisted. “They need to be almost covered to get crispy.” Stacy pulled free of my grip. “Ma, no way am I gonna use that much oil. It’s disgusting!”

“Disgusting? Grandma Sylvia is turning over in her grave.” Stacy rolled her eyes and continued to drop dollops of batter in her nearly oil-less cephalon pan. I suggested that, as an experiment, we each fry our own latkes–hers made of the batter from the food processor, mine from the blended batter. She agreed.

I stood in front of my burner, frying smooth-textured latkes in two inches of oil, while Stacy stood in front of her pan, sautéing mounds of teensy french fry look-alikes. When she briefly left her post for a bathroom break, I peered into her pan; without more oil her pancakes were going to stick. “It can’t hurt….” I murmured, tipping over the oil bottle and pouring some into her pan. Stacy returned from the bathroom, picked up her spatula and prodded one of her pancakes. “Wha…? Ma, did you put more oil in here?” Her tone was one of wounded shock.

“Yeah, “ I replied sheepishly. “Just a teensy drop—they were sticking.”

“I can’t believe you did that!” she shouted, on the verge of tears. “I would never do that to you! That shows complete disrespect. You don’t have any boundaries.”

Words to this effect have been uttered by daughters to mothers since time immemorial; I had once used them myself. As their recipient I could only murmur, “I’m sorry, bubala…I just wanted to be sure your latkes didn’t stick.”

“It’s not just the latkes,” she said, tears falling freely. “You do things like this all the time.” She lifted her arm for emphasis, spatula in hand. I raised my arms, intending to give her a calming hug, but our spatulas collided, clinking like dueling swords. Stacy stopped crying and burst into laughter. Relieved, I tapped her spatula again and we engaged in a mock duel, our laughter dispelling the built-up tension.

Later, when our separate latke platters sat side by side on the buffet table, I overheard Stacy talking to her friend Joann, a tall, extremely thin beauty. “My mom uses so much oil in her latkes,” I heard her say. “Don’t you think mine are better? They’re not as greasy.” Joann nodded. “You know how they cook,” she said, “all carbs and grease and sugar.”

Later on, though, I noticed Joann standing alone by the buffet. She glanced around furtively, then hastily grabbed one of my latkes and put it on her plate.

“What’s so funny?” Stacy, who’d been standing next to me, asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, “I was just thinking of the dueling spatulas.”

Stacy chuckled. “You’ll have to admit,” she said, “my latkes are less greasy than yours.

“Uh huh,” I nodded, kissing her on the cheek, feeling exactly the way I used to when she was a little girl and I let her win at checkers. “Less greasy. Definitely.”


The Couch: A Short Story

I awoke with0cd5c6215a7a4b76c64f030823c1efc5--chinese-boat-chinese-style cramped muscles from sharing my narrow couch with Lenny. As I watched the dust motes lazily circling through the light around his curly hair I thought, “I gotta get rid of this guy.”

I blinked in self-astonishment, jumped up and put on the coffee. Get rid of Lenny?  The thought was preposterous—in just one month with him I’d acquired a taste for Far Eastern cooking, experienced the magic of midnight ferry rides, learned to play chess, and had been introduced to Zen Buddhism, bird watching, and camping in the woods. His pile of possessions neatly stacked in a corner of my studio apartment was small price to pay. I sipped my coffee and watched him sleep, his slender form framed by the elegant lines of the Japanese style sofa. It was about eight feet long, and just wide enough to accommodate one average-sized body. Graceful black and gray leaf shapes swirled against a backdrop of off-white linen; the back and arms were a rich, deep ebony. Lenny’s porcelain skin pulled taut over finely sculpted bones were the perfect adornment for my furniture. Still, I did not want to continue sleeping with his feet in my face.

No, the couch would have to go, to be replaced with sleeping accommodations for two, and good riddance to its memories. It was outrageously decadent anyway, unsuited to my new lifestyle. Perhaps I had once found it beautiful, but now it seemed an affront, a reminder of the room from whence it came, an orange room decorated in suburban Japanese. The room in turn reminded me of the sprawling ranch house it had been part of, and the life that house had sheltered. My ex-husband and I had made love on the couch, first covering it with a clean sheet…yes, the couch must go. Definitely. Today.

Lenny stirred and threw an arm over his eyes to deny morning. I knelt by his side and embraced his face with my eyes. I never tired of looking at that face: the high fine cheekbones, the haunted haunting eyes, the full lips revealing the faintest droop of disillusionment. An old man had once described Lenny as aristocratic.

“Aristocratic orphan,” I murmured, brushing the hair from his forehead.

“Huh?”  Lenny put his arm down to look at me. He always looked at me as if he couldn’t quite believe I was real.

“Lenny, listen,” I began, eager to spring into action, “I have a great idea. Let’s get rid of this couch and buy a big foam mattress.”

“Oho!”  He sat up and pulled on his threadbare trousers.

“Why oho?”

He looked sideways at me. “Janbaby, you are as transparent as cellophane. Let’s get rid of the couch!  Ha ha!”

I stared at him, genuinely puzzled.

He reached over and rumpled my hair with affection. “So, you can’t stand the memories anymore, huh?  Time to clear the room of old ghosts?  It’s okay, babe, I can dig it.”

I smiled uncertainly; he was partly right, but I resented his quick analysis, that way he had of  pinpointing  and defining my emotions. “Actually, the main reason is my muscles hurt from sleeping in such a tight space.”

“Whatever you say, baby. You say the couch gotta go, it goes.”

I barely managed to restrain myself from saying, “Of course — it’s my couch!”


One of the outstanding features of this couch was that it did not fit in the building’s elevator. Three moving men had labored three sweaty hours maneuvering it up and around the narrow stairwell twelve flights to its destination. My ex-husband had been on hand, presumably to ease my transition into urban singlehood.

“Jan,” he reprimanded me as if the whole thing was my fault, “these guys scratched the finish on the couch.”

“David, cut it out. Look what they’re going through with it.”

“I think you oughtta take $20.00 off their bill.”

“How can I complain about a few scratches when these guys nearly killed themselves moving it?”

“That’s so typical of you—you’re always being taken. I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without me.”

“I’ll do just fine, don’t you worry.”

“Yeah, I can just see you a month from now. Some bum will come along, find out about your inheritance and use you as a meal ticket.”
“David, please, I would like you to leave my apartment. Now.”

“If it hadn’t been for my dumb mother leaving you half her estate, you wouldn’t even have this apartment.”

“Your mother wasn’t dumb—she knew you were unbearable and she felt guilty towards me, so she gave me a ticket out.”

Angry, David reached the door as the moving men staggered in with the last of my possessions. “You guys oughtta make good for the scratches on the couch,” he said, before disappearing down the hall. They glared at him.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” I said, handing each one a hefty tip to compensate.

Considering the moving hassles a prospective buyer would face, I decided to ask only $500 for the couch even though I’d paid $3000 for it just two years ago. I placed an ad in the Village Voice.


She said her name was Margaret Smith, and with a perfunctory glance at the couch seated herself upon it. She then proceeded to confess bits and pieces of her jagged life. I yawned, annoyed by Lenny’s interest in her story. After she’d gone through two abortions and numerous lovers, I asked, “Do you want the couch?”

“What?  Oh, yes, the couch. Well, of course.”

“Jan’s a little anxious,” Lenny told her, embarrassed by my businesslike manner. “She can’t stand the sight of her ex-husband anymore.”

I glared at him. Margaret Smith gave him a knowing smile, then turned to me. “I know what it’s like, but you really should talk about it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of—we all have exes.”

“It doesn’t fit,” I said.

“What doesn’t fit?”

“The couch. It doesn’t fit in the elevator. It has to be carried down–you’ll need a few guys to help you.”

“Oh, that’s no problem. My two boyfriends will do it. It”s just marvelous how well they get along. I’m so much better off with the arrangement I have now.”

She talked about her life for another l5 minutes. Finally she left, saying she’d come for the couch on Saturday.

“Boring!” I exploded, banging the door shut behind her.

“Janbaby, why are you so afraid of opening up to people?  She was a  beautiful chick, honest and up front with everything.”

“Is that really what you think?”

He turned to me, his face free of guile. “Sure. That’s how people should be—trusting. She knew she could trust us.”

“But why?  Why should she trust us?”

“Why not?  No, seriously, Jan, listen to me: you and me, we’re good people. And this is a New Age. You gotta start accepting and believing in your own goodness.”

He stared at me intently, willing me to accept what he so fervently believed. Suddenly I was ashamed of my cynicism; Margaret Smith was probably a fine human being. I walked into Lenny’s open arms and wept in confusion while he, not for the first or last time, comforted me.


On Saturday morning we left the door ajar while eating breakfast. I was savoring the first cigarette and coffee when a gargantuan man walked in.

“You the people selling a couch?”

“Are you buying it?”

Margaret Smith suddenly emerged from behind the Promethean figure. “This is Bo. Bo, this is Lenny, and—I’m sorry, I forgot your name.”


Bo bowed his head formally. “Pleased to meet you, Janice. Leonard.”

Lenny turned into Super Host, transferring the contents of the refrigerator onto the table, pulling off lids, putting out dishes and silverware.”Bo, baby, try some of this cheese. Can I get you a beer?  Coffee?”

“Where’s…” I began, looking around for Margaret’s other boyfriend. She quickly cut me off.

“Now, I’m sure there won’t be any trouble moving this couch. You look like a big strong fella.”  She looked coyly at Lenny; if she secretly thought her chosen adjective incongruous, she didn’t show it. What a fool, I thought, for I knew that Lenny really was a “big strong fella.” I’d seen him split wood with those delicate hands, had felt his hard body on top of mine. I decided to sit back and watch the day’s drama unfold. It was anyhow beyond my control.

My strong fella looked at me, his eyes twinkling. “I knew I’d get roped into this!” he said with a good-natured laugh.

“Let’s stop this partying and get to work,” Margaret ordered. “I’ve been thinking about the situation. It seems to me that with a little ingenuity we could get this couch into the elevator.”

“Watch out for her,” Bo warned with a belly laugh.

“Bo!  You promised to cooperate.”

“It doesn’t fit,” I said.

“We will make it fit. Now, Bo, just examine this couch and see what you can do. I need a cup of coffee.”  Bo stood, looking awkwardly helpless, while Lenny took out a tape measure and crawled behind the couch. Then he dashed out to the elevator with his tape. “Nope,” he reported cheerily when he returned, “it doesn’t fit.”

“What if you took off the legs?” Margaret suggested.

Lenny crawled underneath the couch and emerged covered with dust, a sight that just a few short months ago would have mortified me. “We’ll need a Phillips head screwdriver. Come on, Janbaby, walk me to the car.”

“Lenny,” I told him on the way to the car, “these people were supposed to move the couch by themselves. That’s why I’m selling it so cheap.”

“Yeah, I know — this Bo is a rip. But what the hell, what else do we have to do today?”

When we returned to the apartment music was blasting from the stereo and Bo sat cross-legged in a corner reading my yoga book.

“Are you two into yoga?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” Lenny nodded gravely.

This was news to me; I practiced nearly every morning, but I’d never seen Lenny take so much as a deep breath, much less invert his body in a shoulder or head stand.

“Come on, boys,” Margaret barked, clapping her hands. Let’s get this show on the road.”  Lenny took off the sofa legs, losing maybe three inches of its height. He and Bo dragged it into the hall and rang for the elevator.

First they shoved it in straight. Then they stood it on end. Then they tried various diagonal positions. In every case, the couch wouldn’t clear the elevator doors. Finally, huffing and puffing, Lenny announced, “It doesn’t fit.”

“It doesn’t fit,” Bo repeated.

“I told you so.”

“Now that we all agree,” said Margaret, “let us proceed to the stairwell.”

Bo took up the rear while Lenny carried most of the weight up front. I navigated. Margaret Smith remained upstairs.

Lenny labored under the weight of the couch, his face flushed and hair damp with sweat, while Bo cooly held up his end, more or less pushing it onto Lenny’s back. I trailed behind, in case they needed me to open a door or something. When we finally reached the lobby, Bo went back upstairs to get Margaret, who brought her car around to the front of the building. With heavy twine Lenny did a Boy Scout quality job of tying the couch to the roof of the car.

“I left a check on the table,” Margaret called as they drove off with my couch. I’d been so captivated by the day’s mini-drama, I’d forgotten about the money. I raced upstairs and was relieved to find she had indeed left a check.


On Monday I deposited the check. On Tuesday I received the following letter:

    Dear Janice, Unfortunately the couch broke in half as we were driving it home due to the slipshod way in which it had been tied to the roof of the car. I cannot afford to pay for something I do not have, and so I am stopping payment on my check. Yours, Margaret Smith.”

Against Lenny’s protests I went to Small Claims Court and issued a summons. It was returned marked “Addressee Unknown.”


For nearly a week we slept on the floor. Lenny, accustomed to far worse accommodations, didn’t mind, but I was sore and grumpy. We finally went down to 14th  Street, where we purchased a lightweight mattress, rolled it up and tied it with string and took it home on the subway. We put it down in a corner and threw a madras bedspread on top. Now we had plenty of room, and I slept soundly—until, a few nights later, when I awoke screaming from a nightmare in which my pocketbook and identification had been stolen from me.

“Wake up, Jan, it’s only a dream.” Lenny turned on the light.

I stared at him. His features appeared distorted, almost wolfish. I screamed louder.

“What is it, baby?  Tell me.”

“I want my couch back.”

“You sold it.”

“I didn’t sell it, I threw it away. And you helped me.”

“Janbaby, take it easy. What’s this really about?”

“I want my couch back!”

“Jan, you can’t go back.”
“Can the jargon, Len. This isn’t about ‘going back’ or any deep psychological illness. I’m buying a new couch tomorrow exactly like the old one, if I have to search the whole city to find it.”

“Fine. You want a new couch, we buy a new couch.”

“What is this ‘we’?” I spat out. “It’s my money.”

This was a simple statement of fact, but the viciousness behind it said volumes about the feelings beneath.  Suspicion and resentment of Lenny dripped from my lips; his facial muscles twitched as if hit.  A tense silence enveloped us as he lowered his head. When he raised it again his lips were drooped and tears swam in his hazel eyes. He didn’t have to say a word; I was filled with remorse for having wounded him over a material possession. Over money, that thing we swore was the root of all evil.

I put my arms around him. “It’s okay, Lennybaby, it’s okay. I didn’t mean it, about the money. It’s all right, baby, everything’s all right.”

I cradled his head close to my breast and gently rocked him to sleep. When dawn broke we were still in that position, my body shielding Lenny’s eyes from the glare of the morning sun.




My almost-annual holiday essay/performance piece, which I wrote some 20-plus years ago. It gives me a great deal of egotistical  satisfaction to note that my predictions have come true, as proven by the photos below: 




So, nu? It’s not enough that I’ve been hocked to death by Xmas for six decades, now it’s Chanukah too?!

Christian America has been trying for years now to pacify Jews with misguided notions of equal time: televised menorah lightings, dreidl dolls with curlable hair, latke dinners at 25 bucks a plate. Children’s books on Chanukah spill from bookstore shelves—I saw one in which Chanukah was interwoven with the birth of Jesus.

Enough with the Chanukah bushes already! I don’t want Chanukah any more than I want Xmas. Not only is it a minor holiday, it isn’t even politically correct: it commemorates some sort of Jewish war victory. No one used to pay any attention to it, not even Jews. But the more Xmas fever rose, the more obvious the inequality became. (By the way, Xmas as a national disease is about to go official, with the American Psychiatric Association planning to list Xmasphilia in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

Xmas deserves that listing: it isn’t a holi-day, it’s an event that lasts from October through January. That’s three months, or one-quarter of the year, or 25% of the time we spend on the planet. I’ve done the math: If I live to 75 I will have spent roughly 18 years coping with the anger, resentment and depression induced by the so-called holidays.

The real tsuris is that I’d finally gotten a handle on it, when suddenly, after years of encouraging me to deny my ethnicity, Christians started pressuring me to become a Real Jew. Carolers arrived at my doorstep singing “O Chanukah” and “Dreidl, dreidl” in four-part harmony, demanding latkes. I received an ecumenical card, “As we celebrate Xmas and Chanukah…” When I objected to the wreath in my office, the person who hung it let loose with an incoherent, sentimental ode to menorahs. Huh?

Fellow Jews, we must act, and fast, before a dreidl decorates every streetlight, and Day-Glo stars of David invoke guilt and capture gelt. We must organize so that come next October, when electronic menorahs play “Little Star of Bethlehem,” we’ll rise up in unison and shout




Top 5 Crimes Against Pedestrians in Car Crazy California

“In order to get across the street (in LA) you have to have been born there.”
     –Martin Amis in Money


It’s been over a decade since I chucked my car and began getting around, most of the time, by putting one foot in front of the other. By now I should be used to the low priority, invisibility and outright abuse of pedestrians in the Golden State, but if anything, I’m becoming more outraged the more time passes. In ascending order of importance, then, here are the worst offenses committed by car owners.

  1. Drivers waving me on

This is a petty complaint, I know, but I can’t stand it when a driver stops at a corner, with or without a stop sign, as I’m about to cross, and magnanimously waves me on–as if my crossing the street is entirely up to him or her, and aren’t I the lucky benefactor of such kindness? In fact, according to CA law, if a pedestrian steps off the curb, traffic must cease until they’re safely across. It’s a right, not a privilege.

  1. UnknownCracked and broken sidewalks

Sidewalk maintenance gets little attention in many cities, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Even potholes, notoriously left unrepaired, are taken care of before sidewalks, since after all we don’t want our cars getting ruined on the road–and what kind of nutcase walks anyway? My first car-less year I tripped and fell four times; needless to say, I’ve become hyper-alert. Still, last winter’s rains took a heavy toll; one street I walk down regularly is so badly caved and crumbled that I have to step into the roadway, raising a hue and cry of honking. I’ve been told it’s the landowners who are responsible for their own sidewalks, not the city; I’ve been meaning to look into this.

  1. Dog shitUnknown-1

Why is it that the owners of the biggest baddest dogs are the ones who have yet to join civilization and clean up after their pets? Two lazy louts in my ‘hood are guilty of this, but I’ve never actually caught them in the act. When I come upon their infernal messes I hold my nose and circle past the sometimes steaming piles of poop. I’m closing in on one of these guys, though: I think I know where he and his dog-horse live. As soon as I’m certain I plan to file a report.

  1. Cars parked on sidewalks.Unknown-5

You have a ten-room house and a two-car garage, but you need even more, you greedy bastard! You park your car so it takes up all available sidewalk space. I cannot overstate my angry resentment of such people: all I want is a sliver of sidewalk! But no, here too I have to step out into traffic. Lately one of my neighbors has been making this a daily habit.  I’m planning to write them a note–I will attempt to be polite. (Or not.)

  1. Running red lights

Now this is more than a mere annoyance. The Bay Area and SF have the highest percentage of red-light-runners in the country. Frequent headlines tell of children or adults murdered by impatient assholes who speed up instead of slowing down at the amber light. My son was hit by one of these heinous criminals many years ago, and he’s suffered TBI (traumatic brain injury) ever since. If CA is supposed to be so mellow, why are these drivers in such a rush?

Ah, here’s the truth: Californians, driving or not, aren’t, despite the stereotype, mellow;. Having lived here for almost 30 years I concluded some time ago that they live in a permanent state of denial. Which is a whole other topic.