Oh, This is the Stage

The stage at La Paloma Sabanera is about four inches high. You could barely call it a stage at all. It's a step, really, a raised platform butting up against the windows right next to the door. Before closing time, there are two round tables and four chairs stationed there, and if you want to put on a show you've got to wait for the locals to finish their coffee and gossip before you can move the tables. Sometimes this takes a while, because lots of people use La Paloma for the kind of meeting where you really just want to hang out with a colleague in a pleasant place and say at the end, "Great meeting," with a jokey expression on your face that means that it didn't really feel like work. You got an excuse to hang out at La Paloma, that's all. I've seen this expression on the faces of the unemployed and on the face of the mayor at La Paloma on the same day. Everyone knows it's a relief just to be there. Once those tables are empty, you have to lift the tables down onto the floor and rearrange the room a little bit. You throw your bag of books, or your guitar, or your clipboard, or your cables on the couch, and then you get down to the pleasant work of turning every chair in the room to face what was a second ago a restaurant and is now a STAGE. You're going to do something weird up there, something a little too big for its narrow depth. I've always loved watching people see La Paloma's stage for the first time. "Oh," they say sometimes, if they're musicians or actors, imagining a grand theater. People are always surprised or disappointed for a second, and that's the moment that they have to get down to the real work of being the artist they want to be. That very moment, they have to realize that they're going to make the best of this cafe/stage and that they're going to be absolutely fine. For some people, that moment is a millisecond, so short they don't even feel it; for some, it lasts too long and they start to panic. But everyone has that initial thought: oh, this is the stage.

The first time I performed at La Paloma Sabanera was as an improviser, and I stood in front of the door, one foot hovering on the stage, one foot off, deciding when to enter. I was blocking the door and a couple of times I had to get out of the way so that people could come in and see our show. My improv company Sea Tea was just starting to do long-form, experimental stuff, and we booked a few days with La Paloma to force ourselves to put it in front of people. Up until that point, we'd mostly done it in the living room of two of our players, and every time someone died during a scene and ended up on the floor, a corgi named Penny would run over and like his or her forehead. We were all really young and were rehearsing around dogs and roommates, or we lived in studio apartments with no space, or we were driving over from our parents' houses an hour away just to do some weird improv in a living room. It was a great time, but it was also a hard time, because just about all the improv we did was terrible. Just awful stuff, confusing or pretentious or something we vaguely remembered from old SNL episodes. But two or three nights a week we hung out in living rooms or restaurant basements, trying to get better at something we were pretty sure we would eventually be good at. In retrospect, it was insane; in retrospect, it was impressive that we beat on against the current of our own imperfections.

At some point, somebody said a phrase that I now realize is Hartford's "open sesame," Hartford's "Speak Friend and Enter." Somebody said, "I'll talk to Virginia."

We talked to Virginia. She said, sure, do a show here. She always does. We did a couple of shows that went like this: we'd do a few short, easy improv games; a band would play; we'd do a long-form set with a few scenes that were just ok and a few scenes that were a little more than ok, and then the band would play again. We took the scenes the audience of fifteen or twenty-five people liked, the little places that they laughed, and we built our style and our company off of that.

At every show we had to explain what improv comedy was. That's how it goes in a little city where you're trying to do something new. But at every show at La Paloma, the audience would nod and look open-faced at us, gazing at us, heightened four inches off the ground, and treat us with respect and buy into the grand illusion that we were towering over them, professionals, artistes. "Sure," the audience seemed to say every time, "it sounds perfectly reasonable that you're going to mime eating turkey-flavored ice-cream while wearing matched t-shirts. Show us more!"

I went to so many events like that at La Paloma. Events that had to be explained, events that were rough around the edges. Sure, play this song you just wrote last weekend. Sure, read this thing that's half a poem and half a blog post and half a video game script (and sure, it's three halves, who cares?). Sure, this is a wind-machine made out of a trash can, let's see if it works. Sure, yes, I will close my eyes and listen to the radio with you.

At one point a few years ago, when I was hemming and hawing around about being a writer with a capital W, no doubt complaining and whining to myself that there was just no space for me, that there was no community of writers here, that I couldn't get published so what was the point, wah wah wah, and I used to go to all these awesome reading series in New York and why didn't those exist in Hartford, someone said to me, "talk to Virginia." And I walked over to La Paloma after work and I said, "Hi Virginia, I'd like to start a reading series," and she said "Great!" and then for two hours, one night a month, for twenty-two straight months, ten writers would read their work. That is two hundred and twenty readings. That is two hundred and twenty instances of a writer stepping up on a four-inch stage and putting their work out there, because someone said "sure." And the readings got better and better and better. The writers kept coming back, even when there were only six or seven people in the audience, and even when there were fifty new ears they had to put their work in front of.

Virginia says "sure." She's said that to so many bands and musicians I have trouble keeping count of them all. She's maintained a space where doodling as an art form and all-night novel-writing sessions are perfectly normal.

The times I have felt most moved in La Paloma, though, are during the improv mixers organized by Sea Tea's Vlad the Improv-er. If you haven't been to a mixer-- and why would you have, if you aren't someone with a secret dream to try to do one little improv scene over a warm beer-- then it's hard to describe why it's so great. It has something to do with people coming into Hartford from far, far away, sometimes out of state, because they are desperately hoping to meet someone else who's kind of funny and fun to do scenes with. Vlad calls people up on stage, matching them up-- a veteran who performed in New York for ten years and was on an award-winning team, paired with a mom who's never done it and finally got a babysitter-- and then they shake hands and they do a scene. They just do a scene. They step up on the stage, they think oh shit, this is the stage, and then they think oh, everything's fine. And then the music comes on and they step down. It ends up being so simple that they love it, and then they come back. Some of those people are on excellent professional teams now.

This all makes it sound so easy, like La Paloma is a magical place and Virginia is some wizard who makes it all happen. But that isn't true at all. La Paloma is the place where you put your money where your mouth is. Since it exists, and since Virginia always says yes, you have no excuse. Make your art. Get your ass in there and pull out your calendar and pick a night. If you don't, it's your own fault. Nothing is more liberating than that. Do it. Go. Make it happen. Bring your audience. Explain what you're about to do. Make some bad art. This is the place for it. You're going to have to make bad art before you make good art, and that's what this place is for. It's an excuse-evaporator, a community-maker, a screen, a chapbook, your first LP. Really though, what it has is your first audience.

It works on the other end, too, the spectator end. If you think there's nothing to do in Hartford, no one trying new things, no one putting themselves out there, no individual artists, no risk-takers, no political action, no real conversation, no debate-- go to La Paloma. And if you still don't see what you want, maybe it's time to stop being a spectator. Get off the table, get out of the chair, move them aside-- oh, you're on the stage. Oh, this is the stage. You were on it the whole time.

La Paloma is many more things-- food and coffee and conversation and the best place in its neighborhood and everything else you've heard, if you live in Hartford, and everything you're imagining, if you live somewhere far away. I have made so many friends here that I can't remember specific meetings any more; those friendships have all blurred into one mellow memory. I had a friend who had moved away to Ecuador four years ago, seemingly forever, and just last week I ran into her at a La Paloma event. She's moved back and that's one of the places she went to first. Of course. Of course it was. I was overjoyed to see her but it felt so inevitable.

La Paloma is closing down. You must have heard by now. If you're from here, you heard it directly; if you're not from here, you heard it echoed in some other messy little space where people gather. A place where you know someone must be pretty cool just for showing up there. A place that answers that little call in your sternum that we so rarely acknowledge out loud: I need a place where I can try something new, where I can show up alone. I need to have a night that is truly surprising. I need the possibility that I am something more than what I was yesterday, even if I'm broke, or an alcoholic, or an introvert, or depressed, or just here in Hartford all of a sudden for god knows what stupid job transfer or family obligation or accident. I need a place.

When someone asked me where I'd move Syllable, my reading series, I went unusually silent. "I need a place," I said, "where if five people show up it's not embarrassing, but if sixty people show up, they can fit."

So it is with gratitude that I say goodbye tonight to La Paloma, and thank you for being my secret garden. I admit that when I came to Hartford the city seemed dead and full of weeds, depressed and angry and fraught. And I was, and still am sometimes, those things too. There were many fertile grounds in Hartford where I was able and allowed to repair and grow my garden, but only La Paloma has felt like a skeleton key. I wish I had made better use of it. I wish I'd been less selfish with my time, and spent more money here so that it would not be closing down. It's so hard not to feel personally responsible for its closing, since this place and this person gave me so many chances every day to make something of myself, and it. It is a reminder to me that there was always a first stage and a person who said "sure."

I have played on many bigger stages since those first improv shows at La Paloma. We had to move the mixers because we opened our own studio and we were overjoyed to fill it. We don't have to explain what the hell it is we're doing any more. We did that work at La Paloma. And so many of the bands that played their first shows here have moved on to New York or were playing earlier today at internationally acclaimed festivals. Or the radio producers who frequent this counter continue to broadcast to a hell of a lot more than thirty people. Or the films that were screened here were played for rooms of hundreds. We outgrew you, La Paloma, because that's what you allowed us to do. And we are so grateful. And we're so sorry that we didn't make it easier for you to stay here forever. And we promise that we will make that space somewhere else. And we recognize that it's our job now to do so.

There is something here, in this last 24 hours before those doors close, that I want to make sure I remember. In this little space, even if we went on to bigger stages, we were not discovered. This was never a place to show up and be recognized and made famous or talented. We had to move the tables ourselves. And then we pointed out to others: this is the stage. But, despite all I've said, it really never was a stage. There are no wings to wait in, there are no stairs to sneak up. At that first show, I was standing with one foot on, one foot off, ready to rise when the scene needed it. That's not a stage. That's a step. And when you're ready, you take it on your own.


La Paloma is closing tomorrow, June 27th. Tonight, in celebration of five years of incredible programming, there will be an awesome marathon performance of 40 bands, writers, comedians, radio producers, storytellers, artists, filmmakers and doodlers. Free, of course.


A few days ago, my friends and I went to see Jurassic Park in 3D Imax. The theater was mostly empty, so it was just a few families watching the spectacle of a dinosaur theme park, devoid of visitors other than the small test group of archaeologists  adorable children, and bloodsucking lawyers. The movie conveniently sends most potential victims off the island in order to hone in on the idea that those velociraptors really have it out for those kids. While we were watching in our slim little crowd, a fight broke out in the hallways of the theater. At first we didn't hear it because of the soundproofed doors. Then, after a moment, someone took refuge in our theater-- she burst into our movie, screaming, and someone full of rage followed her in, also screaming.

I was ready to hit the deck. I had one hand out to grab my friend Laura, who was sitting on the aisle, and push us both down between the seats into our popcorn. I was ready to play dead. All of this occurred in my head in about three seconds, because that's how long the fight lasted. They fizzled and left. No one was shot, or hit, or even running around. Just two people screaming at each other with true rage for a second, taking refuge in the dark.

When people were killed watching Batman in Aurora, Colorado last year, something changed in me. I was terrified that people would stop going to the movies. When you think about it, the very idea that our favorite American pastime is sitting with a crowd of strangers in a very dark, very loud room-- in seats that are difficult to get out of-- is scary. Horror movies work because the environment is so immersive and claustrophobic. I thought, when that shooting happened, that there might be an instantaneous destruction of the trust we have in crowds. The particular dark of the movies had been violated. I was full of rage that people had been killed in a space so thick with trust.

It devastated me, that idea. I love crowds. Living in Connecticut after New York, I miss them-- I miss the rush of people coming off the subway, I miss sold-out shows on Broadway and at the IFC Center. I miss eavesdropping on field trips to the Met. I miss waiting with hundreds of people to buy Harry Potter from a tiny independent bookstore. I used to go do things just to be in huge, gentle mobs of people in New York, who understand that sure, five more people can fit on this subway car. There's always room for more. In Connecticut, where people move to have more space, I've intentionally sought out Bruce Springsteen concerts, UConn games, parades, and opening nights of terrible teen movies, just to be in happy crowds. I also took up running.

Running is a strange and vulnerable sport. At first it felt weird to go out with no coat, no phone, and no wallet, and then it felt good. Sometimes I even left my keys at home. I immediately started racing, too, and felt that joy of the crush of people around me. The best part of every race is standing in the crowd of runners. The second-best part of every race is the spectators.

Spectators are the heart of the race. They usually come to catch a loved one in a fleeting moment, but for hours before and after that moment, they stay to cheer on everyone else. They watch, they revere the simplicity of individual human struggle and achievement, over and over and over again, and their words give more energy than fifty Dixie cups of Gatorade.

My friends, the spectators, at Mile 26 of the Hartford Marathon

Before I watched a race myself, I thought spectating a marathon would be boring. Running is all about personal limits, mentalities, and goals. It is, to me, a totally symbolic act masquerading as a totally physical act. Why would we want to watch thousands of people streaming by, doing something they'll never technically "win"?

Because running is not a game, and it's not a test. It's just an action, a peaceful, futile act that some of us do to demonstrate our humanity to ourselves. I am human, this is what my body can do.  To watch people by the hundreds and thousands surprise themselves is not just inspiring, it's addicting. Show me a person who's gone to cheer at a race and only cheered for the person they know. Show me a person who's gone away unmoved from the finish line-- it's all beautiful, the superhuman winners, the massive crowds of ordinary folks, and the slow ones-- the gorgeous, the hunched, the overweight; the elderly, the injured, the friends running together; the ones who move to the side as they open the roads back up even though they're not quite done.

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon,  everyone thought of the runners first. We tracked the bibs. We thought the people who had lost their legs were the ones who had come to prove what those legs could do: run.

But we know, of course, from seeing video, is that the victims were all spectators. They had come not to run but to stand. They were likely all shouting, at that moment, for strangers. Strangers who were either slightly faster or slightly slower than their friends. Strangers who were doing something they'd never done, would never do, or would like to do someday. Strangers who were fueled by the power of someone witnessing their achievements.

On that same morning, a New York Times Op-Ed about Guantanamo Bay began to circulate. I read it with horror. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I began to berate myself for not thinking about the world more often and more deeply. I promised myself I'd be a better spectator: that'd I'd keep an eye on what was happening around me, that I'd actively seek to cheer on those that are doing good, and do more good myself. I'd join the crowd again and again, as many times as possible. When the bombs went off in Boston, I thought about how many times that has happened so far away from me, their reverberations barely reaching my ears. This time, it reached my ears. My cousin was there, on the block. The fear reached my ears, then my throat, then my stomach, then my heart. She was fine, thank god, and I cried with the relief and luck that I've never been that afraid before and that it came to nothing for my family.

Again I find myself  consumed by fear that the crowds will never form again; I'm afraid that we'll all decide to spread out, stay home, stay quiet. I'm afraid that we'll collectively decide that the home theater of the internet will keep us safe while getting to watch. My irrational fear is that we will mistake the meaning of spectating. It is more than just watching your twitter feed reload. There is no theater without an audience to gasp and laugh and listen, and those reactions feed the show and fill the air.

I know my fear is somewhat irrational. I know the crowds will never stop forming. After the Hartford Circus Fire, we didn't stop going to the circus; we fixed the fire codes. We still go to the movies, we still work on Wall Street, children still go to school. Crowds make us a target but they also create a thicket of humanity: medical staff, police, strangers, families. All running towards disaster's aftermath, faster than athletes finishing a marathon.

We must be there to watch, because when we are called, we must be there to help. We can't always stay home. To protect ourselves and ourselves only, to close the gate, is to leave the rest of the world standing outside, alone. Remember that the T-Rex isn't really coming just for you. Know that, at some moment, you can decide to get out of your car and save someone in another car. Know that at any moment, your amusement park ride could turn you from a spectator to a hero. Don't be afraid. Be ready. Tip from a runner: visualize it, again and again, and when the time comes, you too will run in the right direction.

I know without asking that my cousin Jessica helped someone that day; she's helped me up and down mountains and through races before. She has cultivated an automatic generosity and automatic bravery. She has practiced running; she has practiced spectating. I'm glad she was safe, and I'm even gladder she was there to potentially help others.

I am a runner now. I am slow and there are many better runners out there. But I will continue to run. And when I can't-- when my legs or my heart have someday given out-- I will take my place and stand and cheer. And if I can't-- if my limbs or my heart have been blown away-- if I am trapped in a dark, loud room-- if monsters tear down the electrified fences we thought would work, to trap us, mere children, in the cars we thought were safe-- if our circus tent goes up in flames-- I will hold out my hand, because I know, I know some stranger will know it's time to turn from shouting and take that hand. In less than one instant. And that's what I promise you, stranger, that I'll do, too.


Have I told you about the piano yet? I say that all the time now. The piano is the story I want to tell people. Every few years I end up with a story like this. Have I told you about the boy with two broken arms? Have I told you about the lobster? Have I told you about the man who stole my shoes, and how I chased him down?  Have I told you about the bus that was on fire, the train to Mongolia, the boat that almost capsized?

I should just tell you about the piano directly without all the preface; yet I ask you first because I tend to repeat these stories. I repeat them because I think, I hope, that these stories say something about me. That they depict me as brave and true and wild and weird. These are the stories that make me think, while they are still happening, ohgood, another story. I'm still alive.

The piano surprised me, showing up as it did on my facebook feed a day or two after Greg asked me to marry him. Free piano to anyone who can come and get it today! By the time I finished that sentence, I knew the piano was mine. It was my destiny, just like the little desk I bought from a French man in a parking lot in New York that I had to stuff into a cab, which now sits in my apartment covered in parking tickets and pens. Just like the siamese cat that is, at this moment, running in circles around a hand-carved table that I also became instantly attached to. I try not to be materialistic-- my clothes are downright tattered and my shoes all stink-- but when I think about certain materials, like wood and paper and paint, I realize that as computers overtake my brain, I still covet objects. Real objects you can hold in your hand and make a noise with. Like pianos.

I immediately claimed it. It was mine! It was mine, even though I had no way to go get it. Don't even have a car. It was mine, even though I was currently at work. It was mine, even though I didn't know how to play it. None of that mattered, because what I knew the second I saw it was that it was Greg's engagement gift. He got me a ring, and I would get him a piano. I asked around for a truck to put it in with limited success. Then I realized-- since this piano was going to float to my apartment one way or another-- I should find someone currently at the piano location and have them bring it to me. So I did.

Two teachers brought it from a school and tipped it onto a dolly. The elevated it up eight stories, wheeled it into my place, and set its 500 pounds next to the kitchen counter in my studio apartment. I was all gratitude.

Greg came home and I said, "you'll never guess what's in here!" and he couldn't. I think he was in shock. It was in beautiful shape and terrible tune. He immediately started to play it.

Bad sounds wafted in the air. Neither of us can play, but from a lifetime of performing, both of us have good ears. We know what music should sound like. It was salvageable but sour.

"I'll tune it," Greg said, and I immediately said, "I don't know if you can!" Piano tuning is notoriously hard. Piano tuners are notoriously weird. For weeks, I told people I'd taken this the piano, and Greg told people he was going to tune it. Every time the person would tell him that he probably couldn't tune the piano all on its own.

Greg ordered the tuning tools in the mail. He took the top off the back, revealing the harp inside. A piano's just a harp surrounded by wood, a hundred and eighty-eight drums smacking down on hundreds of little strings of steel. And he began to tune it.

It took forever. It took days and nights of waking up and falling asleep to a one-note dong-dong-dong-dongdongdongongononononggggg as he tuned it. There were over two hundred strings in all, and each one had to be tuned. It sounds just about perfect now, although he occasionally goes in there and adjusts a string.

But all that was a while ago. Now he plays whole songs, although they take him far too long. He refuses to play anything but difficult songs. They each take him six or seven minutes to play instead of three. Chords are suspended in slow-motion in the apartment as I fall asleep, or when he gets home from work. This morning he was at the piano even before his eyes were fully open.

Does it drive you crazy? people ask me when I tell them about the piano. Not at all, I say. It's like living in a lullabye. It makes things slow and quiet. There's music in my home now. I've gone over and touched the keys a few times, trying to remember how to play, trying to start over. Sometimes when Greg's not here I sit down and do scales. But I know my part of the story. I'm the magician who makes a piano appear, to sidestep all of the reasons it was impossible to get one. I'm the one the piano happened to.

But Greg's the one who will see the mechanics and fix it up. He's the one who will tune it. He's the one who will make the music sound right.

What I Thought Would Happen, and What Happened

There's a blizzard on today, and so I finally have time to think. Happy 2013, Snow Day. ***

I began 2012 in a terrible scramble to write. On the 11th of January, I'd be giving a reading at Real Art Ways. Years ago, in early 2008, I'd read a flyer with RAW's movie listings and decided it would be ok to move to Hartford. My last tether to New York-- the movie theaters where I'd sit and watch second-run indies, alone-- was no longer valid. I moved to Hartford, and four years later, I was on the flyer. I was a Real Art, or at least, on my way.


I read about airplanes and karaoke, I read about dogs and a lot of other things. The woman who introduced me reminded the room that I had a New Years' resolution to do one symbolic pull-up, something I'd never done.

I was all resolutions in January: the pull-up, mostly; but I also resolved to run twelve races, and write, and cook, and all of those things we all resolve every year, if not on January 1st then on other little days in our heads. Mostly I resolved to get to Zero. I had a to-do list three hundred items long, and dammit, I would blast them each away like a wizard poofing out knickknacks with the end of his wand.

By the end of January, after two weeks of vacation which I took alone in my apartment, I was down to four to-do's. I knew I would never get to zero because of a red coat. It badly needed to be relined; it was badly, badly tattered. Every time I put my arm in one sleeve it would end up somewhere I didn't intend. Along the back, or in the collar, or, most distressingly, once again in the open air. Pockets were worse. I'd put my keys or a wallet in and it would swim all around the coat, jangling along until it fell out hard on the floor of the bus or in Mark Twain's parlor. Luckily, all my stuff is loud. It smacks hard where it lands.

I knew that fixing up the coat required more steps than I could quickly execute; by the time I found a lining and a tailor I'd have more things to do. I gave up on zero. January ebbed, and the tidal wave of 2012 crashed in.

It was hedonistic from the start. I saw giant horse puppets shudder and die in Lincoln Center; I learned how to evaluate whiskey; I almost went to a Dr. Zhivago party in an old curtain factory, but then I didn't go, which is even more self-indulgent.

In February I remounted the Love-Chase, a play written by Twain's daughter Susy, and a bunch of little girls put on Susy's exact words in the exact spot where they were originally performed. At Syllable, the reading series, people read from their diaries and poems and I sang a song and thought this is how this series will always be. I ran my first race of the year: Cupid's Chase, around the park by my house, and I thought I will meet these resolutions. I am Cupid, and betterment is what I take aim at.


In March there were birthday parties and engagements. In March I was supposed to go to a Black Keys concert, but just before the train doors closed, we saw the dates on the tickets were wrong and we ran off, laughing, and got sangria instead. I had interns, I ran races up stairs, I had an improv coach. I wrote sketches. I fought forward. I ran the O'Hartford 5k, I ran the Fight for Air Climb. Three down.

In April, I found fantasy. My boss and I took a photoshop class and I faded together pictures of Beluga Whales; Eve Ensler shook my hand and the memory of who I was and what I'd believed when I was nineteen came thrilling back; I told stories at a fundraiser for a friend I'd known, even then, wouldn't live. I began practicing how to improvise a disaster-- ridiculous plane crashes and animal attacks, so that, come showtime, I'd be able to find myself a survivor. I wrote down "DISASTER #1" for the first rehearsal. I flew to Seattle and jumped in Puget Sound to prove I could handle the ice water. I was building myself, doing push-ups against the world, readying myself for the races.

By the time May came everything was real. I called Judy Blume on the phone, and I wrote a grant, and Sea Tea won a years' worth of Cage Matches. That night, I braided my hair for the Mudder-- that was my battle armor. Greg and I drove to Vermont and I was terrified.


The morning of the Mudder, I found myself standing in a pit of mud, my sister whispering, "go." She and my cousins and my brother hauled me over a wall. We swam through ice water, we climbed rocky hillsides. There was quite a lot of jumping and falling and crawling and swimming. There was mostly fear, resolve, and trying. I tried. I tried. I tried. I was never so happy to fail over and over; I was never so much a part of my family. Towards the end of our five-and-a-half-hour race, during which we agreed to not talk of the past or the future-- even so much as which obstacles were coming next-- I walked across a balance beam over a pool of ice water. I made myself not fall in. It took me forever. I made it. It was hard not to fall-- but it had also been hard to will myself to fall off a 30-foot platform earlier that day. Of course, falling on purpose has a different name: jumping.


I crawled back to Connecticut and it was still, miraculously, May. I ate lunch, I raced a week later to raise money for breast cancer. At a bachelorette party I destroyed a dirty pinata with what was left of my Mudder strength, while blindfolded. We went to a picnic wedding, we ran races that got us doused in paint. I read the collected works of Judy Blume. May was candy-colored and joyful.


By June, I was jumping over and over. On the first Sunday in June I ran a half marathon I'd forgotten I'd signed up for. I put on my pants and broke my best time by half an hour. I set up a dunk tank at work and dunked my coworkers. In one Disaster Show, I played a robot, a band leader, and a floutist, and I killed of all three of my selves with glee. I got to interview both Judy Blume and Joan Didion onstage, truly two of the best nights of my lives.


But also in June, I was falling. A friend from graduate school jumped from a bridge. A friend in Hartford died of cancer. Joan Didion's hand, thin and delicate and strong like a bicycle wheel covered in tissue paper, waved in the air as she described her grief for her child. I got the feeling that her glasses weren't enabling her to see but that her eyes saw, on the backs of the lenses, all that she'd lost and all that was over.


So thank god for July, because July is surreal, always. I rode a horse through a forest; I stood on a paddleboard on the Farmington River and paddled my way down; I looked into the jellyfish exhibit at the aquarium; I want to a wedding in a forest hundreds of miles away; I stood around the Twain House in a little girl's dress threatening people with a lead pipe; I threw an ice cream social. I ran another race, the Fugitive Mud run, in which you begin trapped and must climb you way free. You must begin by untying your hands before you can climb out of the trap. You are relieved by the time you're crawling in the mud.


August was all about one single mountain: Katahdin. But on our way to it, my family paddled in a canoe in a pond on Cape Cod. We swam out to a swampy island. We walked in many woods. My sister and brother scaled the Otter Cliffs in Acadia, and the following day we climbed the Beehive, swam in the Bowl, Hiked Mount Acadia, and swam in Echo Lake. Hike, swim, hike, swim: the real Mudder. We biked the old carriage roads in Acadia and drove out to Baxter Park and camped at the base. We completely failed at lighting a fire.AugBeehive2

We climbed Katahdin; and the next day ate popovers and read tarot cards in the rain. We went to Wells Beach on the way home and got one quick, glorious sunburn. When we returned to Connecticut, Greg and I found an archery range and I made him take aim in front of me. He hit target after target. On the last day of August, Greg and I took out the scooter and laid on a blanket and watched ET in a park, and I cried at the end, as always, whispering "Stay... come...!"


September: Boston for improv workshops. Gasping at Hedda Gabbler, sitting alone in the theater. Bacheloretting down under the eaves of pink Victorians on Cape May. Teaching workshops on Civility. The one-year anniversary of standing in front of a music stand at a tiny reading series and introducing hopeful young writers to each other. Tasting whiskey. Improv show after improv show. Beerfest tasting, with more beer than ever. Writing a Civil War play, performing it, and that same day, improvising a full-length musical. I spent every weekend outside attempting to run twenty miles along the river.

In October, the year had already become a marathon, and the marathon was coming. But there were all sorts of little sprints before that: lectures on charcoaled graphic novels, and a big work event with RL Stine and Sandra Brown. Literary Disco had taken off and I was reading books early in the morning. Anytime I wasn't running, I was reading. We put the keys into the door of our improv studio for the first time, making something previously invisible visible.


On the morning of the marathon I stood next to the Hartford Carousel crying into my gloves. What was I doing? I wasn't ready for this. There had been too many whiskey tastings, too few Katahdins. Too many late nights after locking up the studio, laughing about what my friends had said. What I thought would happen, when I started the year, was that I'd become some kind of lithe, fit Amazonian woman. I'd hoped that by the time I got to the marathon I'd be just another zippy athlete jogging along 26 miles. But I wasn't. I was still completely, horribly myself, every step effort. I began to run, because I had to. And after three miles I ditched my hat and felt fine. And after ten I ditched my gloves and felt amazing. And after seventeen ditched the possibility that I wouldn't finish. And after 25.9, heard my friends playing the trombone and cheering for me, and sprinted through the end, where Greg was waiting with a sandwich.


But I'm still me, still not the perfect athlete, so two hours later I was wearing a squirrel costume and darting through Elizabeth Park at sunset. And a week later was picking pumpkins and tasting wine and definitely not running at all. And a week after that getting cheap, behind-the-stage tickets to Bruce Springsteen and feeling embarrassingly moved by 'Everybody Has a Hungry Heart.' Because I do. Because I am not a calm collected Amazon.


And yet, the marathon was over, but the year wasn't. November came on the edge of a hurricane. Greg did avante-garde theater as a bearded Toulouse-Lautrec. We scooted out to a wedding in a barn in our fanciest clothes, and then we drove up to the Cape to have cake for my Grandfather's 92nd birthday. On election night we fell asleep in our lobby. I went up to Vermont and returned in time for our Sea Tea Improv Studio Grand Opening, and the next night worked the Medieval Gala in a paper cone princess hat. And-- shit-- despite the Mudder and the Marathon, I had three races left to go, so I ran through the woods on Veteran's Day. We went down to see Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, and came up to meet Hal Holbrook. And on Thanksgiving I ran a 5-mile race with Greg by my side, and the entire way we listed things we were thankful for. We got into the hundreds.


December was quiet at first. I was tired. We saw Neil Gaimon and Neal Degrasse Tyson discuss Vision and Brilliance, and let ourselves be inspired. I worked the door at the Holiday House Tour and got to hear hundreds of people be similarily inspired by the stenciling in Mark Twain's front hall. I read a lot of Henry James, and let the kids I was teaching ride in a horse-drawn carriage three times in one afternoon. It was really a very quiet month, even when I woke up one morning and agreed, under the blankets, to marry Greg. It was quiet when we walked around with that secret for days, telling people one at a time, on the street, on the phone, in our apartment, in Twain's basement. It was quiet when I told our dental hygienist and he was sincerely overjoyed, since he's taken care of both of our teeth and cares very much about who we might be kissing. It was calm when our friends came over to swap cookies, and it was calm when we watched "It's a Wonderful Life" from the balcony at Cinestudio, and it was calm when it began to snow on our way out to Cape Cod. We were there, and we were in Simsbury on Christmas Eve, and woke up to snow, which quiets everything. And it had been quiet on the morning of my last race, the Blueback Mitten Run, which was just a little 5k and seemed over before it began, and full of hills, just like the whole year.


On December 29th we took a bus into New York, spent the day in another snowstorm, and ate apples before going through security. We all slept on the plane-- me and my friends, that is-- it had been a long year for everyone. On New Year's Eve we walked through the desert on the edge of an erosion crater in Israel. That means it wasn't hit by some outside force, some meteor of luck or fate or destiny, but eroded on its own, making its own form from the tiny forces of what was already there.


There was so much already there in my year: a job, a home, a huge snowfall of interesting and loving and weird friends and acquaintances. There were a hundred improv shows, a hundred events at the Twain House, a hundred hours spent reading and recording for Literary Disco. More than a hundred miles slogged out in the year. More than 200, in fact. And my to-do list was as long as ever. I'd put the keys to my life in the coat I'd made, and they'd flown all around the lining and landed with a loud smack at the end of the year.


What I thought would happen is that I would become someone else: a person with more energy and more achievements. A person for whom moving forward is easy. But of course, that's not what happened. What happened was the details eroded into a strange and beautiful shape, and the year was a crater. Everything was hard, and everything was easy, too. Now, more than a month later, I'm standing on the edge of that year, looking down into it, remembering that I didn't fall into that crater. I jumped into what I had made. And as my memory reconsiders those days in which I climbed, paddled, canoed, swam, crawled, grieved, flew, improvised, read, wrote, recorded, fell, jumped, and landed, the crater will take on a slightly different shape. It is already happening now.

But that is too huge and terrifying to think about. So on the last night of 2012, my old friends and I took a bunch of sparklers into a restaurant and lit them. Nobody around us cared about the turning of the year, but those sparklers burned bright for a minute, and I was grateful for everything they lit.



Photos by Greg Ludovici, me, John Groo, Kevin Panko, Summar Elguindy, Jessica Hurley, Catie Talarski, Chion Wolf, Steph Drahan, Katherine Martinelli, a generous guest at the studio opening, and an overjoyed European man in New York.


It all went wrong. First and most, I had caught Greg's terrible cold and our cats had fleas. The only thing I had left to hold on to, other than my full bottle of DayQuil, were the facts that I hadn't yet caught pinkeye and that I'd be attending my best high school friend's wedding that night. I put on a dress and a cardigan and realized I looked like I was going to a funeral, then put on all my makeup, and then suddenly changed dresses and got on the back of Greg's Vespa. The suddenly very cold November wind tangled my hair and made me cry my makeup off my face, and when we were almost there I realized I was wearing the same dress I'd worn to the bridal shower with all the same people there. Oh well. At the church I got all tangled in my scarf during the ceremony and got the giggles very badly trying to sightread the solemn Catholic hymns. I was standing behind someone very tall and so couldn't see the kiss, but I watched it from the viewfinder of a stranger's camera. I was very happy.

My friend the bride, who I grew up with in New Jersey, wanted desperately to get married in a barn, and the one she chose was a hudred miles from her home and only four miles from mine. So Greg and I arrived early to the reception. The barn wasn't open. "Let's go to Lucky Lou's and have a hot drink," he said, coughing too. We had Irish coffees and then walked out into the colonial graveyard. We were improperly solemn again. I can't be unhappy in a beautiful graveyard.

The barn was open when we went back. Everyone there had grappled their way out of a hurricaned New York and New Jersey and everyone was yelling their stories very loudly. My voice began to fall away, and when I couldn't be heard any more, I retreated to the dance floor. Bon Jovi was celebrated as a god when he came into the rafters. Against all judgement we took the Vespa another four miles deeper into Connecticut, following our friends back to their hotel. We all promised to run marathons with each other, but not to do small things like call. Everything was loud and louder.

When I woke up in the morning my eyes were sealed shut with pinkeye. In my attempts to look like who I used to be, I'd used every brush and bottle I had. I threw all my makeup away, left with only my bare face.

My Toulouse

When I was eleven, I began to study French. I was a mediocre student of the subject, intimidated by the challenge of speaking with a vocabulary as immediate and reflective of a popular, busy, bubbleheady life as "we are going to the swimming pool," and "Allo? Let's go to the library with Jacques," when what I was thinking about in those days was distinctly in the subjunctive mood: "if I were more beautiful, who would love me?"

While my teacher turned out to be something of an embezzler-- overcharging for the annual Paris trip so that she could bring her daughters, a practice which was discovered and shut down the year before I would have gone, so I never went-- I will always love her for one thing. She quizzed us on the impressionists regularly. Since I could not master the language, I boosted my grades by hanging out in the library memorizing Cezannes and figuring the differences between Monet and Manet. To this day I can spot a Renoir or a Cassat from halfway across a gallery, on style alone, and as I approach the plaque that will confirm my rightness and the worth of my New Jersey public school education, I always feel a rising sense of gratitude towards this teacher. I feel that those colors and blurry interpretations are somehow mine, thanks to her.

In my middle school and high school, there were four language options. You had to choose one. The practical kids-- the overwhelming majority-- chose Spanish. The dreamy ones with cliched romantic notions chose French. The kind of kids who, at eleven years old, were thinking about SATs chose Latin. And the future punk kids chose German. My parents and all four of my grandparents were all the kind of people who would choose French without a thought. So did I.

Greg, the paramour with whom I share an apartment, studied Spanish for all those years I was studying French. As I sunk into an ever-more difficult notion of the romantic life, Greg learned a language I'd later hear him speak in with ease and for practical uses. Grown up, I have tried many times to interest him in French, but my efforts to explain my delight in completely impractical French things fall oddly on his ears, I think.

So it was with great delight that I received the news that he had been recruited by a professional arthouse theater to portray Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the great post-impressionist painter and poster artist. Tonight I saw him pull a ribbon out of a bottle and paint a piece of glass. I watched women in nearly-horizontal tulle skirts do the can-can unironically, and after the show I pulled on Greg's overgrown whiskers. They've never been that long, but in order to portray this grotesque and wild man he grew his beard way out. Toulouse-Lautrec, though, was practical in his own way: he made millions during his lifetime and had no problem commercializing his work by selling it as poster art. The whole performance was done in a marble stairwell of a museum. It was quick and had a big audience and every voice was distorted by the echo of the place. Greg as Toulouse lifted the girls and sold off the paintings, and as I watched I thought "when I was eleven, could I have known I would be here? Could he?"

He came out afterwards and we tried to sneak a look at the actual painting the play was based on, but it was closed off so I had to rely on my memory of it. I couldn't remember exactly. "Let's go home," I said, and we put on our pea coats and walked there.

Slow Burn

Dear readers: I started out to write this and it turned into something entirely different than I intended. If anyone has feedback I'd love to hear it. Perhaps this was an unintentional brainstorm for something better. Like it or hate it, at the very least this is a good example of my first drafts.  ****

This weekend I drove from my home in Hartford, Connecticut down to Cape May, New Jersey for a bachelorette party. Not a single party-- a weekend of festivities, ranging from lounging on the beach to formal dinners to pin-the-macho-on-the-man.

I am good at these sorts of games. At my last bachelorette party, I destroyed a porny pinata with four great bangs of a little pink bat. At another, I presented undergarments so lovely that the bride wore them as her "something blue." On this particular occasion, I put that macho on the man. So what if it was backwards?

When I'd said goodbye to Greg in Hartford, we'd kissed each goodbye in the middle of a conversation about the business we run together (and with several other people). We're not married, but we are good at weddings. We know what to wear and where to stand to get a picture of the cake-cutting. I can't cook at all, but I can pick out kitchenware and wrap it up to be adorable. I have developed a liking for cool, clean hotel sheets and sharing a room with old friends, so that everyone can laugh into the night. I know that champagne gives Greg a headache and he knows that I wil inevitably lose a button somewhere on my dress. Grandparents love us. And I have grown very fond of the bachelorette party and the bridal shower: these old-fashioned rituals of sisterhood usually take on a quiet spirit of solidarity, underneath the whooping and cooing.

Despite growing up in New Jersey, and being at least third-generation Jersey shore, I'd never been to Cape May. It's a seaside town, a collection of Victorian mansions that make up a National Historic Landmark. This is not the Jersey shore of gym/tan/laundry; this is the Jersey shore of floor-length swimsuits and, later, bobbed hair. This is where the feminists started going into the water in smaller and smaller suits.

The whole town is a collection of dollhouses, looming high and well-painted, so well-maintained they appear to have good posture. The doors are shut and you only have to see them to know their heaviness. Since I work at a historic house, I wondered what furniture was behind those doors. How many people go antiquing, and how often, to fill these rooms with davenports and chaises and vanities? Are there enough antiques out there, in barns and attics and other, smaller, less grand homes, to fill these romances we've left here as models for our summertimes?

I got a sunburn on this weekend. I'd lain out in the sun, finishing a book, knowing I was probably burning. But there were dolphins in the water and sandpipers all along the outgoing tide, pecking around for what they wanted. My friend the bride and all of her friends were quiet, their feet buried in the cool sand. And I got a little sunburn, a slow one, from denying that the day was going by.  I get so many sunburns that way.

We did not really talk about love at this particular party. I like this about these friends, and I like this about certain bridal events: it is enough to say "this is a beautiful place and here we are together at the seaside." Someone asked who was getting married next and we all brushed it off with the usual ha-has.

On the morning I had to leave, I pulled the car around to downtown Cape May and got out, just for a minute, to walk among the dollhouses. When my sister and I were young we build a dollhouse like these and painted it pale blue. We didn't play with dolls in it, really-- we enjoyed the building and furnishing of that little dreamhouse more than imagining ourselves as the dolls. But still, the house-- the house, with its one nonexistant wall, so that we could see into the little secrets of the past-- the house was beautiful and everything that many little girls wanted.

I walked back to my car. My sunburn was starting to ache and I wished I could just take off my bra, which was pressing against it, and drive into the future where I wouldn't be so impulsive and dumb and let myself get burned again. In the seventies I would have done it, maybe.

Where Books Come to Dance

The other night I finished reading Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's puzzle-novel about how human beings prey on each other physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's the sort of book that you finish, close, and think about while staring into space for a good half hour. Then you desperately want to talk to someone about it. You want to undress it, to examine it, to further understand it by dissecting it with a friend. When I was a graduate student at Bennington, my fellow students and I spent many hours talking about books. Many, many, many hours. Not only the hours sitting around a conference table woefully comparing our work with those of the masters (although, of course, we did that-- I had an incredible year-long streak of reading only nonfiction that people mentioned in the workshops), but hours upon hours of sitting around in a student lounge debating why It was so weird, or which Faulkner we were likely to go back to. I distinctly remember a 3:00 AM wine-induced argument about whether "the canon" was just east coast academic snobbery, and what books were in it. Then we'd get up at 9 AM and go to workshops and talk about more books. It was an incredibly good time. The best way to characterize this environment, really, was the game running Charades: one of our number insisted that we play a massively long and adrenaline-rushed version of the miming game. Our whole class of twenty-five people participated. You haven't lived until you've seen a bunch of book nerds miming "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," or "What is the What," or "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

I miss all that. Others do too. I don't want to read strangers' reviews on Cloud Atlas; I want to gab about it with a bunch of people who've read it too. I've been in book clubs, and they're great, but they almost always fall apart within six months. I want to know that I can comfortably compare a books to either Italo Calvino or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, and that my companions will either know what I'm talking about or be curious to find out. Most of all, I want these awesome people to tell me what to read.

In this spirit, my friends Tod and Rider from Bennington gave me a call. They missed our 2 AM book chats, too. They asked me to read books and talk about them, using the magic of the internet. And so.... we launch Literary Disco, a podcast.


We've recorded about six episodes so far, and I have to say, I'm having the time of my life. Sometimes it's just the three of us. Sometimes we bring in an outside writer and we all talk about a book together.

Basically, all you need to know is that we're a bunch of writers talking about books. We love them and we laugh at them. It's awesome.

So if that interests you, please listen and subscribe and write and read.


More good news: I found out recently that I am a recipient of the Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Phase II. I will be using the funds to set up a home office and fill it with supplies, get books and literary magazines for research, pay a professional reader, and a few more things like that. Basically I am covering the small (but cumulatively substantial) costs of being an "emerging writer," as they call me. I am in the company of many wonderful artists, including a puppeteer, a violin maker, and a woodworker. I am very, very honored and excited.

The Advocate and Me

Big news, kiddos. As of yesterday (I know, that's a century in internet time) I am the Hartford Advocate's latest blogger. Here's my first post. I promise not to cross-advertise too much between this personal project and that professional one, but still, it's an exciting notch in my writing life. The idea is mine, and the good people at the Advocate were supportive from the get-go. I believe very much in the project and I'm really excited.

Thanks for your support, and please follow that blog if you're interested in cities, walking, Hartford, or looking at things up close.

The Girls Who Made Me

Tonight I am working on an essay about girls from literature that shaped my personality. Not influenced: shaped. Constructed. Without these girls in my life I would not be Julia. Their names are: Charlotte Doyle, Meg, Matilda, Turtle, Elizabeth Wakefield, Samantha, Mary, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Frank, Belle, Ariel, Margaret, Velvet, Clara, and Lyra. And, being entirely honest, half the members of the babysitters club. And, lord, DJ Tanner, too. Sorry, arbiters of taste.

There are also the ur-girls, the ones that even I knew were ur-girls at the time: Alice, Jo, and Dorothy. And the girls I recognize like cool cousins now, but are too late for personal impact: Hermione and Katniss.

I will write this essay because in some ways, I realize, this is the essay, the self that was created (I can't even bring myself to write "the self that I created" because the person that is "I" now is really the industrious work of these fictional hands; the "my" in myself feels collective) when I was busy making a person of myself. I am excited about it and somewhat scared by it. The adult version of this girl, these girls, is walking through adult looking glasses and accidentally stumbling onto tornados, chopping off hair, making the best of strange mansions. And this adult girl needs to go back to her younger self; but sadly, that younger self is fluidly swishing around in memories and ideas and doubt.

Luckily there are fragments of self dutifully recorded and mass-published. I will revisit and report back.

What do you think? Sound interesting?

Writers' Houses

I'm pleased to announce that I am guest blogging over at Writers' Houses, a website that has been recognized by the New Yorker, The LA Times, and, most importantly, the dork community.  Check it out when you have a chance-- it's a behind-the-scenes look at my job at the Twain House. Fun to live, fun to write. Writers' Houses!

Three Journals

Oct. 22, 1837 "What are you doing now?" he asked. "Do you keep a journal?" So I make my first entry to-day.

-- Henry David Thoreau (first entry)

June 1897

"I am a realist bothered by reality."

-- Jules Renard

"If you'd told me last Monday that my weekend would end eating the best rhubarb pie ever at an off-season ski lodge on top of a mountain in Arizona, discussing a paranoid schizophrenic's comments on Chernoble during the chanting at a Buddhist funeral, I'd say: glad life is so surprising."

-- My facebook page, August 30, 2010


This morning I woke up and read other people's journals. The New York Review of Books has recently abridged and published Thoreau's day-to-day record of nature's minutiae; I also have with me The Journal of Jules Renard, a French fin-de-siecle diary of the inner life of one now-forgotten writer. Both journals can be read almost like reference tomes; open to a single page and find something out of context that somehow provides context for the moment you are in right now. Here, I'll do it. (No cheating, I promise):

"I find some advantage in describing the experience of a day on the day following. At this distance it is more ideal, like the landscape seen with the head inverted, or reflections in water." -- Thoreau, April 20th 1854

I used to shelve books in the reference section of the library at Skidmore College, and I took a rich pleasure in opening the works at random and learning something strange. One book was a taxonomy of sea creatures, one the DSM-IV full of psychiatric diagnoses. Sometimes I would steal a second to discover the population of Guatemala. Reading other people's diaries replicates that experience. When you shut the book, or turn the page, most of the time the information vanishes right out of your head, but you had a glimpse of something true. These things feel beautiful to me when I see them isolated on the page and they feel beautiful when, mid-conversation, I try to chase them down in my memory. What was that thing I read somewhere?

Journals, as a habit, have morphed so completely that we do not recognize them. I'm of the opinion that we are seeing a resurgence of journals, diaries, and note-passing in the form of facebook and twitter. And yet we largely hate these things, see them as dumb and a waste of time (even those of us who are engaged with them every day). I have heard people say so many times, "I don't care about every little thought you have." Well, I do. I love John Smith's diaries, and Thoreau's, and Anne Frank's, and slave narratives, and Mark Twain's letters. I love my facebook page, which I just clicked back through as far as it would let me go (June 3, 2010-- "I just got recognized in CVS!").

What we are not seeing right now is that we're living in the middle of the greatest documentation of daily life in history. The problem is, we don't think of it that way, and our digital journals smack of carelessness. I want to say to everyone: observe better. Reflect better. Conclude better. Write better.

But of course that isn't fair, or in any way effective. Because what Thoreau's random April quote reminds me  is that our digital journals are too immediate for us to really reflect on them. When I was a serious diary-writer (I went through a few very intense spurts in childhood and then a blowout recording of about 1,000 handwritten pages from age 17-18) I just about always leafed through the previous pages. I thought about what I'd promised myself before, what I had seen that I had forgotten. I heard my voice speaking seriously about a past I knew had become this present. When I wrote again, I had a larger sense of self and world in mind. I was in conversation with my sense of self. I do not do that any longer. I wish I could see my first few facebook statuses, see myself learning to use the technology, see myself choosing the online voice that now feels so ingrained. I wish I could see it all at once and edit it down to a story of myself, as paper diaries have been in the past.

I have an urge to conclude, but, this digital slice is also just one tiny entry in a reference book. So I will not. I will open up Jules Renard, at random:

"I am not content with intermittent life. I must have life at each instant."

I said hey! What's going on?

Dear readers, I hope you've been enjoying my periodic whimsical rants about whales, radio, books, and the like. I think it's about time for a real update on what's going on, don't you?

1) Sea Tea Improv continues to grow at a breakneck pace. We just did a great show at ESPN's campus, our 2nd birthday is today, we're on the lookout for new places both to perform and to teach. All very good! If you're at all interested in improv, comedy, theater, Hartford, or small businesses, I encourage you to keep up with us. I never thought I'd be a part of something so grassroots and satisfying. Oh, and I completed the 3rd level (of 4) of education at the Upright Citizens Brigade. So much fun.

1a) I've started recording a Sea Tea podcast. 5 episodes recorded but not posted yet-- stay tuned for that. I'm trying to learn how to edit audio and interview people well and then when I have a decent product ready I'll post a few to get started.

2) The Mark Twain House & Museum is, as always, a daily dose of random. I'm coordinating a Tom Sawyer Pirate Day, a Victorian Tea Party, events related to a Steampunk Exhibit, an Oktoberfest, a traveling Mark Twain Game Show, the silliest twitter feed, a booth at the CT Book festival... I could go on forever.  Someday I will write about this.

2a) I'm also about to start another radio project relating to the history of the Twain House as a historic property. It will involve inspirational women. I'm thrilled to pieces, especially to be working with Catie Talarski, quite an inspirational lady herself.

3) I picked up another little job teaching a combination of theater and Twain History to a gaggle of kids at the Hartford Children's Theatre. Kids! It's been a while. Can't wait.

3a) Speaking of theater, I'm in a top secret puppetteering production for Real Art Ways' Odd Ball (out of towners: that's an indie cinema & art house in Hartford).

4) I'm still writing and submitting things here and there, but it's slow going because of all my other commitments and projects. The Writers Fellowship I won last year is almost up and I've used much of the time to research an essay on Ghanaian Fantasy caskets, brainstorm a new piece about technology and my relatives, and write short pieces intended for radio. The writer's life is a slog sometimes and I wish I could create more time out of thin air.

4a) I was in Washington for the AWP conference and won a little short fiction contest via the Coachella Review. That was fun! For more writing news poke around this whole site.

5) I'm trying to shave an hour off my half marathon time. Ha ha ha. Really.

5a) I'm also trying to get back down to fighting weight so I can go on some  scuba and rock-climbing weekends with my wonderful and athletic siblings.

6) I'm about to launch a reading series at La Paloma Sabanera (a local coffeehouse) because, frankly, there should be one, and if I've learned one thing about Hartford it's that you should just do it yourself and stop complaining. Right? I'm VERY excited about this project.

6a) My reading life has been spotty lately. I need someone to recommend a great book I will tear through in a week or less.

7) Finally, this blog is going to get a revamp. I've played around, I've posted here and there-- it's time to knock this sucker up to twice a week and get some actual subscribers. Therefore: please subscribe, tell me what you like and don't like, and come along for the rest of my year of new projects.


Today I am in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, working my way through a writer's fellowship I was awarded last year. I have two essays I'm working on-- one a repurposing of my last blog post about cameras, the other a repurposing of an essay about funerals in Ghana.  Here's an excerpt of what I am editing: This room was the Fantasy Casket workshop, where a local man had made a fortune for himself carving coffins. At my feet were commissioned tombs, pine sarcophagi with carefully carved beer bottle caps or chicken feet. They were painted with cheap paint, the words GHANA AIRWAYS or THE HOLY BIBLE singing citizens to their rest. This thirsty carpenter over in the corner might be buried in the likeness of that coke bottle, which stood behind me, almost dry from its final coat of shellac. Some of the caskets were open, so you could see how one might place a body under the snail shell, or into the tail of a fish.

Originally I had this section about fantasy caskets as an introduction to a completely different story, but a publication that I love asked me to lop off 90% of the essay and continue working on the Fantasy Casket aspect. Therefore, I am spending my afternoon wondering what object or animal I might want to be buried in, if forced to pick. Book? Blue whale? What does it mean that my top two totems are currently considered endangered species?

The idea of a more mundane object-- a cup of coffee, a cell phone, a computer, a pen or a coin or a toothbrush or even a cat-- these seem embarrassing, and yet these are the objects that preoccupy me day to day. It feels like having your ashes scattered in your driveway rather than at the ocean.

I'm going to save the rest of my thoughts for the essay, but please-- use this strange idea to meditate on materialism. Then, if you're feeling like I am at the moment, vow to live your life today with grander themes. Bury yourself in something you'd be proud of.


Recently I was cleaning out my supply closet (there have been a lot of snow days) and found an undeveloped disposable camera. This discovery was particularly mysterious because I can't actually remember the last time I used one of those things. I normally have intense, long-term monogamous relationships with fancy cameras, playing with lens and light and composition as my mother and grandfather taught me to do. The only period of my life where I used disposables with any regularity was in high school to take hundreds of upon hundreds of photographs of my friends and I goofing around making cupcakes, or taking our first train to New York, or headed to the shore on senior cut day. In my mind, disposables are associated with both recklessness and babysitting money, which I would lay out on the CVS counter while picking up my prints (with doubles, of course, to dole out to whatever friend I'd slung my arm around while holding the camera in front of us). Disposables also, almost always, took on a distinct sense of mystery as you worked your way down through the roll. Anyone who has carried a disposable camera around in their bag must remember looking down at those tiny, descending numbers thinking what in god's name is on the beginning of this roll? or, at a wedding, who grabbed this off the table before me? At weddings I always liked picking up the cameras and taking pictures of people I didn't even know, thereby injecting a little extra mystery into the proceedings (who took this? the couple would say to each other as they went through the endless shots of centerpieces and bad dancing).  In short, the disposable camera was antithetical to the general advancement of technology-- less instant than Polaroids, lower quality than pretty much any other camera on the market, and not valuable in any way outside of its brief life recording things not important enough for a real camera.

So, as you can imagine, I was quite curious to see what was on this camera. I was fairly certain I'd taken it home from a wedding. For this reason, I dawdled on getting it developed-- because last year I knew a few couples who'd gotten divorced. The pictures might have been a portal to happier times.  If that was true, then it would be a new moment, a new memory, to reconsider, a brand new expression of love that would be immediately shattered. No thank you.

But lately I have been on a mission to accomplish everything within my home-- to finish everything unfinished, to confront everything I have delayed. I have been dashing through half-finished books and repairing broken jewelry; I have recycled receipts and hung pictures; I have returned letters and put things up for auction on ebay. The camera had to be developed if my project was to be complete.

I took it down to the local camera shop a block away (how did it take me three years to find the best local business in Hartford?) and one day later, at the end of a very bad day, I had this:

Greg and I went on a camping trip in 2004-- yes, seven years ago-- and apparently, due to what I can only guess was a practical protection of our real cameras-- brought a disposable. You, dear reader, do not have to be polite. The pictures are absolutely awful.  And I love them. Here's why.

Everything has changed since we took these pictures. They are dingy, the light is awful. We only took one picture of each thing, and half of them are of nondescript bodies of water or bushes or views. We took a few photos of each other, looking tired and drenched (it rained the entire time), and not a single photo together. Clearly we pulled out the camera randomly. It appears there is no more than a photo or two per day. Clearly I forgot about the pictures altogether. It also looks like Greg took the camera home and finished off the last six pictures at various intervals over the course of several months, based on the scenes and the tans of his subjects. Almost every single picture has the stunning lighting and compositional elements of this one:

I love these pictures because I've forgotten that pictures didn't always look like an advertisement for my own life. They used to look like my actual memories, sloppy and weird and halfway done. I also love that one of us carried it around for the past seven years as the two of us traveled around the world separately, meaning to get it developed.

And with this disposable I have remembered the ecstasy of delay. Had I developed these right away, I probably would have thrown half of them out. Had I taken these photos with a digital camera, I more than likely would have deleted most of them within twenty seconds of taking them. I would have tossed out the imperfections of my own life.

I should say here that this camping trip is, was, will always be one of the highlights of my partnership with Greg. We were drenched and scared of woodsy noises. We were exhausted the entire time. I vacillated between complaint and bullying. Greg got a tick that I had to pull out. I couldn't sleep because the inside of the tent got wet, including my sleeping bag, pajamas, and shoes. And we both found all of this hilarious. I couldn't be happier that these pictures are as random as that trip, and have reminded me, in both form and content, of that ordinary little vacation just as we were falling in love.

I hope the rest of my home yields such funny mysteries.


One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on writing nonfiction was this: become an expert on something. A good nonfiction writer is really just a very serious editor; the world is spread out before him and he sculpts away all the negative space until he is left with a tiny nugget of information or interpretation. And we, the readers, love having someone point to the great things under our very noses. That's why books like Salt and Blink and Stiff and Better and Cod and Andrew Jackson strike the public so hard. Someone is pointing to this thing and saying hey, look at this! Cool, interesting, and important! Add this grain of sand to your ever-expanding information age knowledge!

Fiction writers, lucky ducks, are experts on the worlds and characters of their own invention (I happen to be reading Ender's Game and it's shocking how the world, like all good fictional worlds, feels not only real but inevitable, obvious).

I say all of this because today I am reassessing my expertise. My life thus far has been devoted to learning in a disorganized way. I made a study of studying for a while, and then of having adventures, and then of reading and writing (which is cheating because I read and wrote about zillions of different things), and of getting and quitting jobs, of course, and then of friendship and laziness and all sort of things.

So I am left, these days, with a fact that many memoirists know: the only thing I am an expert on is myself. And not a terribly interesting version of myself, either, but still, there I am, putzing around waiting to be investigated. Montaigne changed the writing world with his observations about himself and thousands of others have not shied away from the self as subject. But today, I hesitate. I'm tired of myself. I want to look outward to this very interesting world.

And so I search for new expertise...

Writing at Home

Tonight I am at home. Also in my home are, as I can see from a random look around, a cactus, a kitten, an overdue and crooked tree, a book on human anatomy, a recently completed puzzle on top of a table with too many chairs around it, and a stack of written but unsent letters. This will all become important later. Tomorrow at the Twain House we are having a writer, Anne Trubek, come to discuss her book A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. I am currently midway through the book (as well as, as we discussed back in September, three or four other works) and find Trubek's skepticism interesting. She harshly posits that our cultural interest in authors' homes is little more than a mundane, cloying interest in irrelevant aspects of a writer's life. Trubek says that the books are all that matter.

At first glance, and as a happy employee of The Mark Twain House, I rolled my eyes. Come on. We visit writers' homes because we want to see that they, too, were human, a part of history, and could emerge from their historical moments to create something enduring and emotional. The way we create heroes out of our writers is the same way we create heroes out of any historic figure, and although of course we can never really know a complete person once the myths are made, no one would say a person who's changed history or literature isn't worth considering. And writers have the special benefit of handing over a voice. Often it feels as though they are speaking directly into our ears, saying this is who I am, this is who I am. That's what makes reading feel magical: the brain-to-brain transfer over vast swaths of time. It's amazing, really.

On the other hand, the devil's in the details. The fact that I listed two plants and a puzzle in my earlier selection makes me sound a lot homier than I am. Now I'll tell you that the plants are all dead or near dying and that should your perception. Or what if I had told you that in my house I had a completed puzzle, a completed Rubik's cube, a huge amount of IKEA furniture, and a hand-built computer? Makes me sound like I have good spacial reasoning. But I don't. Greg built all that stuff for me. (I helped with the puzzle. Along with twelve other people.) Or I could mention in some letter that I am drinking a glass of lemonade and, a hundred years down the line, somebody might be throwing an annual lemonade-themed birthday party because that's the only drink I ever mentioned in a letter.

It's just so easy to find evidence of any trait here in the middle of the room. Lazy: unsent letters, tons of beer bottles in the recycling, unmade bed, deployed recliner. Compassionate: rescued kittens, sympathy cards, pullout couch, open digital picture of a wounded friend. Dumb: seltzer next to computer, cheap stupid novels, misspelled words, pathetic bank account and receipts for unnecessary items. Smart: books and diplomas and whatnot. Socializer: texts and notes and missed calls and thousands of emails. Lonely: well, I'm the only one here right now, aren't I?

The point is, our objects can never fully represent us unless we fully represent them. And that would be exhausting. I can't point to everything I have, remember everything I once had, or describe everything I want. And yet these may be the things that someone uses to create a memory or a myth about me.

Faced, as I often am, with the impulse to list things, I will try and keep in mind that it is all part of one story. A story of myself, and my life, which I cannot completely control, but which I can edit carefully before I invite the skeptics in.