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Reactivated!

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…And Full of Ideas

During my two week disconnection from the Internet and what now feels like civilization, I had to keep myself amused and mentally engaged, so, in addition to catching up on reading and TV, I did a major overhaul of my computer files. Just taking a look at the sheer number of pieces I’ve written, or ideas on hold, during the past several years was an act of self-discovery that fired me up. I decided to put together a collection of essays, mostly from my blog, and am currently combining, revising, culling, and all that fun editorial stuff. Then I figured, why not also do a collection of short stories? That way, I’ll kill two marketing birds with one stone, since I’m so bad about doing my own PR.

I plan to self-publish them, probably with iUniverse.com, since I was satisfied with their handling of Perfectly Normal. You might ask, Why not submit them to agents or publishers? The truth is, I haven’t the heart or patience to dick around with the publishing industry anymore, particularly the sending-out-getting-rejected phase. They don’t help you sell your books anyway, so I’d rather just go ahead and get it done myself.

Now that I’m back to blogging and all the entrapments of the online universe, though, I have to promise myself to continue working on these collections, rather than spending hours or even entire days clicking and surfing and clicking and emailing and clicking and copying ad infinitum. I want to keep on blogging, though: I love the immediacy of it. There are those days I’m screaming at the radio or TV news, and it suddenly occurs to me to do my screaming in public, via DIRTY LAUNDRY. Or the days when I wake up, having hit upon some secret of life in my dreams, and I rush to the computer to tell everyone.

So another thing I did while disconnected was expand my ongoing list of potential blog topics; it’s been steadily growing for years. It did occur to me to keep blogging and just save what I wrote to post later, but somehow the lack of immediate gratification left me unmotivated. Thus, I now find myself stymied: after my long hiatus, I don’t know where to begin.

I was going to ask readers to vote for a topic — I even made up a poll — but then I figured nobody would vote, and I’d be disappointed, and look pathetic, so I took it down. I’m replacing it with this anecdote about something that happened to me a few days ago.

I was standing on the corner near the library smoking a cigarette when a young, 30-ish woman walked by and made a big dramatic show of coughing as she passed. I’m accustomed to insults and lectures from strangers on the street whenever I light up, so I didn’t react. In a minute or so she came back out of the library, this time going into her Camille number, coughing like a lunatic before she even got near me.

“You could walk another way,” I pointed out. Always looking for trouble.

“You are going to get lung cancer,” she shouted. Like, does she really care? Then she added, while still walking away from me, “Why do you think you have so many wrinkles?”

Well! I shouted after her, “You’ll be wrinkled too when you’re 75!” (I am not yet 75.) She just got into her car and drove off.

I was chuckling, glad I’d been so quick on my feet. I’d amused myself, if nobody else, quite a bit with my rapid response. But I confess that for the next two days I kept looking into the mirror, thinking, “I’m not that wrinkled!” Am I?

Gee, I guess I am.

The Sordid Confessions of a Smoker

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smoking-lady Smoker5:30 a.m. Halfway through my first cup of coffee, I reach for the little cellophane-wrapped box on the bedside table and pull out a cigarette. Four more left. I’ll have to go out in a couple of hours. Pain in the ass.  Maybe I’ll quit. Let’s see, what am I doing today? Don’t have anything I have to write today. Could do it. I light up and drag. Mildly pleasant. Rarely get a rush anymore, not even from the first of the day.

I lean back on the pillows, smoke and drink coffee, watching Democracy NOW!  News of the Earth Day Oil Spill off the coast of Louisiana gets me agitated, yet also inspired. Words start to string themselves together in my brain. I snuff out my cigarette, get up and go to my desk, taking the little box, and the ashtray, with me. After a few minutes of furious on-screen ranting, I unconsciously reach for the little box, take out a cigarette, and light up.

This is how it begins, every day. Oh, events vary: I don’t always leap out of bed to write. But the head trip is much the same. I’ll be making coffee and I’ll gaze around the kitchen of my new place, noting items needed to make it fully functional, and think, I’ll never be able to buy anything unless I quit smoking. Or, say only two are left in the pack: I rush through my morning so I’ll be dressed to go buy more when withdrawal symptoms hit. Always the day’s plan revolves around cigarettes. Always I consider quitting. Always I forget it within an hour.

I used to be able to make myself quit. The longest I went was two years, twice, and I’ve quit hundreds of times for a week, or half a day, or three. It’s always hellish – but at least I could psyche myself up to take the leap. Now my addiction seems to be so entrenched I cannot rouse myself to that point.

Cigarettes cost $6.00 a pack now, more in some places, slightly less in others. I have gone without food to buy cigarettes. I have no more books, CDs or jewelry left to sell. I borrow money from friends and family, feeling guilty. I asked a friend who recently gave me $500, knowing full well that some of it would go up in smoke, if she minded. She said it wasn’t about the money, but she took the opportunity to speak her razor-sharp mind:

“Will my love investment be repaid from under an oxygen tank? Are you free and independent with your intentions towards me? How long can you listen to me, or are your cigarettes holding the clock that governs most of your behavior and attention?”

She expanded into the political aspects of smoking – the tobacco industry, its effects on global trade, on developing nations, on children. I read and re-read her note several times and pondered her words for days – smoking all the while.

StillSmokingNotice I haven’t even mentioned health. In 2002 I went through a few bouts of pneumonia. It began with me gasping for air. I couldn’t breathe. Literally. Could. Not. Breathe.  It was the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through, and in the course of a few months it happened several times. While suffocating, I wondered why I didn’t just go ahead and die. At the same time, I clawed at the nurses’ arm, begging for help, impeding her attempts to give me oxygen. I was diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructionary Pulmonary Disorder). Inner dialogue ceased: I quit smoking then and there, in the hospital. They gave me nicotine patches. I didn’t smoke for almost two years. Then I got better and started up again.

It wasn’t quite that simple: a series of events led up to gradually resuming, but if I went into them now it would just sound like a defense. The thing is, I don’t have symptoms anymore, and though the pulmonologist insists I still have COPD, I find this hard to believe. I’ve learned that I’m a solipsist: I react to what’s going on at this very moment. I seem unable to see things long-term. If I have six bucks in my purse, I buy a pack of cigs. If I have a few packs in the house, I don’t think twice about whether or not to smoke them.

I don’t have a car anymore; I walk everywhere, in time to  music on my iPod. The only time I get at all out of breath is walking uphill –  normal for my age. If I’m in good shape, what’s the big deal?  Maybe I’m fatalistic, but after 50 years of smoking, why stop now? My friend Andrea died of lung cancer 22 years after quitting.

And now I’d have to go cold turkey. A few years ago I developed an allergic reaction to the patch and for one reason or another, none of the other quit methods suit me either. Physically fine, or so I feel at least, facing the prospect of cold turkey…no wonder I can’t get myself psyched up to quit.

Then there’s the social aspect. Dangerous territory, that. I’ve been meaning to write about the anti-smoking laws and zero tolerance attitudes ever since I started blogging. The problem is, I don’t think I’m capable of cohesively expressing my thoughts and feelings about attitudes towards smokers without rage rendering me inarticulate. What with that, plus the near impossibility of making a case for smoking, I’d be laughed out of the blogosphere. Suffice it to say that I’m not only a solipsist, I’m also a rebel, whose actions are almost always in opposition to current trends. Today’s constraints on smoking just make me want to smoke more. Yes, it’s childish and idiotic. But there it is.

Joni Mitchell still smokes, and defends it elegantly. Then again, she can afford it. I feel guilty complaining about money, as if I’ve no right, when I’m wasting so much of the little that I do have. So I try not to complain, lest someone shame me by pointing this out.

Joni painting

Ashamed. Guilty. Conflicted. Scared. Broke. Furious. What do other people do with these feelings?  Me? I light up a cigarette.

Will You Take Me As I Am: Book Review

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Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer

Will You Take Me As I Am

After enjoying Girls Like Us so much, I began looking around for other books about the most interesting of its three subjects, Joni Mitchell. Lucky for me, bios of Joni seem to be on the way to becoming a cottage industry. Will You Take Me As I Am is described by its author, Michelle Mercer, as an investigation into what she calls Mitchell’s “Blue Period,” encompassing the albums Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira.

xbluexrosesxcourt

The release of each one of these albums, with the exception of Hejira, coincided with a different man in my life, and each reflected perfectly the flavor of its corresponding relationship. That is, of course, par for the course among women of a certain age during a certain era in history: Mitchell’s expression of the universal in the personal is the primary reason she caught fire among us. As Mercer notes, “She doesn’t strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself.”

xhejiraxmingusxwild

In my opinion Hejira doesn’t belong in this grouping, and not because I didn’t have a man to go with it. Mercer almost completely ignores The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which came after Court and Spark and, to my mind, belongs here more than the later Hejira, with its disjointed melodies; more important, the lyrics seem almost intentionally obscure and distancing compared to the preceding albums. At the time I worried that Mitchell was going in a direction I’d be unable to follow, but four albums later she seduced me anew with Wild Things Run Fast. I’ve come to view Hejira as a bridge to her expansion into jazz and other musical genres, a herky-jerky first attempt that paved the way for the vastly underrated Mingus and WTRF’s seamless fusion of jazz and rock.

Joni sexyBut although the author’s premise doesn’t hang together for me all that well, it hardly matters: the book is a loving assemblage of revelations about the life and work of one of our greatest living singer songwriters. It was delightful to pick up and impossible to put down. Unlike other books written about her, Joni participated in this one’s creation. It’s been said that she wasn’t happy about Girls Like Us, at least in principle; it isn’t hard to imagine her being miffed by the comparison with Carly Simon and Carole King. Speaking musically, who can blame her? I adore Carly Simon’s bouncy songs and heartfelt ballads, but I don’t put her in the same category. As Mercer says, Simon’s songs contain “little of the investigation that turns over relationship woes for insights into human behavior.”

Ostensibly glad for a book of her own, Joni gave generously to Mercer withxbsn interviews, opinions, pithy quotes, and even a tagged-on list of her favorite things. These include, as everyone who follows her knows, smoking cigarettes. As a smoker myself, I so appreciate Joni’s refusal to surrender her rights, her pride, and her self-esteem to those who malign her for this.  Uncowed by the PC anti-smoking fascism of our times, she maintains without apology that it’s “a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.” Hell, if all it took was tobacco to get everyone as focused as Joni Mitchell, I’d second that emotion.

Joni on tourThis book confirmed something else I’ve long suspected about Mitchell: she’s a man’s woman, the kind of gal who prefers hanging out with men. She’s been a tomboy since childhood and plays pool like a hustler. The only female musician she mentions with any degree of respect is the late Laura Nyro.  As for male influences, she clearly points to Dylan and Neil Young.  She still seems to respect and like Graham Nash. About Leonard Cohen she’s a bit more equivocal: though he did influence her music and her thinking when she was younger, she’s come to regard him as somewhat superficial. He cannot, she says, being only partly facetious, write a song without putting the phrase naked body into it. But she shows no humor or equivocation when it comes to Jackson Browne—she loathes him. With all these men except for Dylan (about whom I’ve no idea), Joni had love affairs of some sort, but only Browne seems to have left her foaming at the mouth. As Mercer says, “Don’t get her started on Jackson Browne, the Catholic Church, or modern medicine.”

I know there are lots of women—and men too—who, like me, love, worship and adore Joni Mitchell, both as a musician and a woman. To all I recommend this book, and give it five fat juicy golden stars. She is stardust, she is golden…

Smoking Again II: Poetry

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nicodemon

Above: Nicodemon

Everything was flat—
no highs, no lows
so nothing was to fear.

Nothing made a difference
and nothing was too hard.
but nothing easy either.

Nothing in the futurebpipe
or the present. Nothing to
look forward to and

nothing to regret.
Nothing made me happy
but nothing made me sad.

I bought a pack of cigarettes
and everything was changed.
The highs were high

and the lows were low.
The future held some promise
but it held a lot of dread.

Life was life again.
Some day I’ll be dead.

skull

Note: See Smoking Again I here.

Be Old Now

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I must be the only member of my generation—the Baby Boomers—avidly courting old age. Everyone else is trying like mad to stay young and live past 90, but I want to be old now and die before I’m decrepit. It’s not that I want to die sooner rather than later—it’s that I don’t believe I’m going to live past 70, or that if I do my quality of life will make it very pleasant. I’m so eager to be old that since my last birthday, in March, I’ve been going around saying I’m 63—until last weekend when Larry, whose birth date is three weeks after mine, reminded me we were born in 1946.

I’ve written about this issue before, so I hope my readers (if such a category exists) don’t think they’ve already read this. The fact is, I think about aging constantly, and this is an entirely new riff on the topic. I understand if you’re getting bored with it, but I’m not.

For years I’ve been ranting about kids on the bus who don’t give up their seats for me and other elders. Yesterday I was subjected to a twist on this experience. I got my coffee in Starbucks and took it outside to the tables that sit on a strip of concrete I think of as Smokers Alley: on one side of the street is Starbucks, on the other side Gaylords Café, and in between are more smokers than I’ve seen anywhere else in the Bay Area. When I’m out of butts I lurk around here to grub, or trade cookies for smokes. Yesterday no chairs were available…Correction: There were several chairs with people in them, one table without any chairs, and one table where sat two younger women and two empty chairs. Naturally, I asked if I could take one of their chairs (in my mind a rhetorical question). The women smiled charmingly and informed me that people would soon be using them.

The women were probably in their late 30s, early 40s. When I was that age, I used to jump up from my seat on the New York bus whenever an older woman got on. It seems to me shockingly inconsiderate that these women didn’t’ immediately give me one of their empty chairs. Irritated, I went inside to get one to haul outside, but there weren’t any spares there either. On impulse, I walked back out, grabbed one of the empties and said, “I’m taking this chair and you can do what you want about it.” I mean, what were they going to do, tackle me?

One of them said, “How rude!” and the other said, “Or crazy!

I am deemed crazy for defying the bullshit niceties of California society. That’s actually one of the perks of growing old—defying social niceties.

Ten minutes or so passed without anyone sitting in the remaining empty chair. At last the women left, giving me an opportunity to vent about them to someone I frequently talk to in Smokers Alley. IMO, it’s an unwritten law that you don’t get to save chairs for contingencies while other people have to stand. This isn’t strictly an age issue…but I can’t help being insulted by the women’s’ lack of respect for an older woman. In the blink of an eye they’re going to be me–not that they’d believe it.

Although older people apparently don’t get no respeck! in our culture anymore, I still want to experience being old, if only in my own head. With age comes freedom from social constraints and from the rat race of frantic ambition. I’m eager to embrace that freedom.

If I don’t make it past, say, 70, then I’ll never get to be old unless I carpe diem. I figure that if by some miracle I happen to last longer, I can always announce, a la Bruce Springsteen, “I’m ready to grow young again.”

Old Women in Arles, Gaugin

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