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Category Archives: Musings

Mornings in Santa Cruz (Failed Haiku)

Early risers catch the moon
before daylight or birds
before clouds return.

Before clouds fill blue sky
I watch full moon
sink slowly.

Full moon sinks slowly
light fading. Birds chase
her, singing madly, joyful.

Singing madly joyful birds
chase morning moon
as she sinks.

Sleepers miss lessons
of morning moon:
loss will come again and soon.

 

fullmoon

He Left His Scarf in My Car

Having just learned that musician Billy Faier died this past year, I’m posting a poem that he inspired many years ago. 

He left his scarf in my car.
Sleepily I fingered the hand-woven wool
that had embraced his neck
on countless winter sojourns.

Then I saw my empty finger:
my ring was on his piano
or perhaps on his hand now
playing Bach.

roadAs I drove into the morning sun
a million ghosts of one-night stands
faded into history:
my ring was on his piano
and his scarf was in my car.

The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

It’s that wonderful time of year again…

 crispy-panko-potato-latkes-16

 

According to my friend Rita, the invention of the blender spelled disaster for the potato latke. She insists that the blood dripping from our grandmother’s 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. Another cousin uses flour. Martha Stewart chops 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 for a Chanukah party, 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 vegetable 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.”

Such words 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…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 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.

“I was just thinking of the dueling spatulas, I said.

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

“Uh huh,” I nodded, feeling like I’d just let her win at Scrabble or cards.  “Less greasy. Definitely.”

 

 

I Hope Hillary Cried

I hope Hillary cried.
I hope she cried in Bill’s arms
and he came through.
I hope Bill stroked her hair
and kissed the top of her head and
whispered words of comfort.

I hope Hillary screamed.
I hope she screamed in the shower
with no one to hear
while scalding hot water
cascaded down her back
and a vein pulsed crazily in her neck.

I hope Hillary threw things.
I hope when she hiked those
magical New York woods in the fall
she picked up rocks, branches,
anything lying in the leaves
and threw them like a girl: angry, furious, fast and hard.

I hope Hillary laughed.
I hope Chelsea wisecracked
wicked and funny so she
got Hill hysterical, manic,
out of her mind with glee
and salty bitter tears rolled down her face.

I hope Hillary cried
for herself, for the tragedy, the misogyny,
the injustice and the pain.
I hope she’s carrying a righteous grudge
against half the white women of America.
I hope she cried in Bill’s arms.

The Labor of Writers

Writing is like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.–Philip Roth

career-path

It goes without saying that poets and writers don’t make big bucks.  People seem to think that writers, especially those who don’t have a dozen fat books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble (e-books haven’t yet achieved the same status) don’t deserve to be paid, because we aren’t really working: writing is viewed by most people who’ve never done it as child’s play. They imagine writers as dilletantes who loll about all day in our pajamas fiddling with words. Unlike the factory worker or waitress or computer technician, we have fun doing what we do. Besides, what of any import have we ever contributed to society? I readily admit that my work is not as laborious as, say, a day in the coal mines. I do, however, work hard, and like other workers I deserve a living wage—yet I’ve been shown over and over again that few people agree with this principle.

PayWriters

For instance: several years ago I taught a creative writing class for seniors in the upscale apartment complex where I lived. I charged a mere $5.00 per class, after trying for $10 and nobody showing up. But wait—that isn’t the crux of this anecdote.I didn’t mind the pennies too much since I love teaching and hoped that by doing it I’d get my name out and attract clients to my writing services . Sure enough, I soon received a call from one of my students’ friends who was working on a memoir and needed help. This is just my line! Helping another writer structure her work, eliciting someone’s story and talent, editing her words and sentences–this is my favorite kind of work. Besides which, this woman’s story held elements of fascination for me, and we talked for a good half hour. I told her how I work and explained the process by which I’d help her complete and revise her book, and also advise her on publication routes. We scheduled an appointment for our first meeting. Before we hung up I said, “The only thing we haven’t discussed is my fee.”

After a moment of dead air she said, her voice dripping with outrage, “You mean you charge for this?”

Moneyhouse$$I had never met this woman. She didn’t know me. She called me out of the blue and actually thought I’d be glad to donate my time, experience and skills out of the goodness of my heart. Can you imagine calling a car mechanic, or a piano tuner, or any other skilled professional expecting free service? This incident still knocks me out when I think of it—and believe me, I’ve run into dozens more like it.

Okay, that’s “creative writing.” So let’s talk journalism—surely a profession, no? Except for the few journalists who live at the top of the heap—those who publish in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, for instance—we’ve never been paid fairly. Before the online phenomenon burst into life, I wrote for magazines and newspapers, earning $50 here, $100 there, sometimes a whopping $800. I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the East Bay Express, and even the SF Chronicle, with an occasional coup such as once for Mother Jones. Since the coming of the Internet, however, I cannot believe I complained about the low pay.

With all these entrepreneurs getting rich online, we writers thought our rate of pay might also rise. Instead, things went from bad to woefully worse. Go onto the job sites—Elance, Guru, Media Bistro—and browse through the ads; go ahead. Online employers offer $10 or $20 for 500-word articles of the kind that once brought in $100. They want ghostwriters to do 300-page books for $500. My proposals are consistently rejected for fee estimates that are “too high.” Recently someone wanted an editor to put together an erotic anthology. You’d think since I’ve done a dozen of them I’d be a shoo-in. Not! Knowing they’d never pay it, I lopped off half the $3000 I used to get for the same work—and was told yet again my estimate was too high.

I’ve gotten nasty emails telling me I’ve got chutzpah asking for so much money—and I give back as good as I get, with my own workers’ rights messages. One reasons they get away with paying so little is that the Internet makes it seem as if anyone and everyone can write, and all writers are created equal. There’s always a newbie or incompetent willing to write for bubkes. You may have noticed the quality of online writing, or rather lack of same.

pay-here2I’ve done online work that, when I added up my hours, paid less than minimum wage. A few months ago I began editing manuscripts for a publisher who paid $75 per. Each manuscript took me 15 to 20 hours. After I did four of them I calculated my earnings: $3.75-5.00 an hour. When I asked for more I was flatly refused, and the publisher stopped sending me work. Was I better off with $75 or with nothing? I imagine other writers ask themselves this question, and must sometimes answer by continuing to work for less than minimum wage.

WallSt.ProtestsSpeaking of other writers, I am not alone. I’m not the only one who can’t make a living at this anymore. While it was hard ten or fifteen years ago, many of us managed to eke out an impoverished existence. We can no longer do even that. To expand my base of colleagues, the same goes on these days in the fast food industry, retail establishments, corporations, small offices, non-profits, upscale restaurants, hotels—name an industry and the people who work in it are doing 40 or more hours a week, have two or three jobs, and yet have to sleep in their cars or worse; they jump through hoops for food stamps (a whole other topic); go hungry so their children can eat; and let us not forget mothers, who get paid for none of their work (another whole topic). We’ve heard the stories and we know the causes. We’ve demanded change in a million ways. Will it ever come? Will people ever make a living by honest labor again? I don’t know.

Happy Labor Day to all my writing compadres and other workers! Enjoy taking the day off—if you can.