Monday, April 23, 2012


This dark novel by Joyce Carol Oates explores the layers of female selfhood.  Read my review below:
 What To Look For In Winter 

I reviewed this compelling memoir by Candia McWilliam a few months back.  It's well worth a read. Click on the link below for more information~

Friday, April 20, 2012


The following account is inspired by a log I discovered the other day, while sorting through some files. I kept it when we lived in Rome, to detail our computer service experience at an Italian Apple store. 

The Apple store on Corso di Francia was a shiny new establishment with a glass front, staffed by beautifully groomed and sexy men dressed in black tee shirts.  It resembled a night club. Interesting edgy music played in the background.  I was to become extremely familiar with this store and its workers. More of this, later in the story...

 To provide a little background, we bought our Mac in the States because it came with a universal service agreement, but when we arrived in Rome, and attempted to hook it up to the internet, we discovered the service agreement did not apply in Italy. And since we couldn't make 800 calls to the United States from our Roman apartment, we could not avail ourselves of telephone support either.

 In August (which stretched into September) we hired a computer technician from the embassy, to come by after work and hook up our existing internet server to the new Apple computer. He sat in front of our computer for several days on end. Sometimes he came during his lunch break and I made us lunch.  He seemed perplexed by the Apple system. We sat together over pasta and salad. He was friendly and charming, but after several weeks, declared that the wireless connector we had purchased in the States could not be used. We would have to buy an Italian router.

 In the meantime, the Microsoft Word system, a free trial on the Mac for 60 days, had expired - and we would have to purchase it separately. Of course I did, down at the Apple store on Corso di Francia. I write in Word. At the time, I was in the middle of writing a book - and all my files were in that program.

 In November, my London based agent told me she needed my book sent to her in Microsoft Word.  The Word system purchased at my favorite new Apple store was freshly installed on the computer. Unfortunately, it was in Italian.

Then, the first week of February, our internet service floundered, and on February 18, it died completely.  Also, our computer froze. I won't bore you with accounts of my long distance calls to the internet service centers, first in Rome and then in Naples, where I waited on hold for several mornings in a row - was put through to the provider occasionally, and hung up on repeatedly.  But following the instructions in the "trouble-shooting" manual we'd purchased with the computer, I did shut down the Mac, and started it again in safe mode.  


I then followed the next instruction, and re-installed the software that came with the computer, careful to 'archive' and 'save' all the music, photographs, my new book files and so forth, on the computer.

I restarted the computer. It booted up. But all the files were gone! Oh, there were strange traces of some of them all right - names in peculiar places, of non-existent files, but nothing could be opened. Nothing appeared to be behind those names, although, inexplicably, there were also mysterious traces of word-processing files stored in the Appleworks templates.

Little did I know, we had only just begun our adventure.  This is where my friends in the Apple store on Corso di Francia really came into their own.

 I took the computer down to them. I breathed in the air of edgy competence the store layout and its handsome technicians exuded, and when I left my computer there, after chatting with the salesmen in Italian, I was feeling reassured.

At least, until one week later, when another Apple technician, Fabio by name, told me that none of the files could be recovered, and that I must not have pressed the right button to 'archive' the files - they were gone forever, due to human error.

 I could pick up the computer, said Fabio, if I telephoned him in the afternoon. Don't phone in the morning, he said, because he needed to sleep. I complied with these instructions, and at a mutually agreed upon time, went to the store to pick up the computer.

Later, I paid 50 euros for Fabio to visit out home and reconnect us to the internet server (which was, as you know, a herculean task). But still, there were problems. As an  aside, the keyboard now needed replacing. Unbeknownst to me, there are different language keyboards - and the Italian keyboard I purchased at the shiny Apple store, was very different from the English one. In order to write fluently, I must learn all the new key positions.

When Rozzie came home from college on March 13, she ran a check on the computer twice. "Mum," she said. "The hard drive is damaged."

 Back we went to the Apple store. It was closed. There was no sign of life - in fact the grid was pulled down over all that beautiful plate glass. Silly me. I'd forgotten about 'lunch hour'. Rozzie and I waited until 4 o clock when the store finally reopened.

You have never seen so many handsome, sweet smelling, well-groomed sales assistants in your life, as they have in that store on Corso di Francia. But strangely, none of the computer service activities there appeared to be computerized. Instead, the assistant who came to my aid scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was a very long number. He said I would have to telephone this number - which was, by the way, in Ireland, and mail the computer there myself, if I wanted to have the hard drive repaired.

 "But this is an Apple store!" I cried. Surely they could fix it in an Apple store! Fabio agreed.  He took the computer into the back room and said he would telephone me as soon as it was ready.

A month passed. I hadn't heard a peep. So at last I went into the Apple store once more and asked where my computer was. While I waited, the technician telephoned one number and then another, and then he scribbled a message on a post-it note. He handed the note to me. "Contact Paolo," he said, "after 6 o clock on Friday." Paolo would tell me what was wrong with the computer.

At 6 o clock on Friday, I telephoned Paolo.  No answer. Two days later, another Apple technician telephoned, to tell me that the hard drive was broken. Did I want it to be replaced, he asked kindly? Did I want them to also replace the cable with an Italian connection?

"I have been waiting a month for the hard drive replacement," I told him.

 One week later, Fabio called to say my computer was ready. I went in joyfully to pick it up. Was this everything, I asked. Yes, he said. And congratulations. We beamed at each other, and I thanked him profusely. But when I got home I discovered they had neglected to pack the connecting cable.

Once again, I had to wait until the end of 'lunch hour' which goes from 12:30-4:00, before I could pick it up. Back at the store, Fabio gave me the cord with a friendly smile. Sorry they had forgotten it.

I plugged in my computer when I got home. What a surprise! I discovered they had replaced the Panther system with an Italian Language Tiger System. My son Alex managed to fix the settings, so that most of the language on the computer was in English - but not all of it. Also, the Appleworks word processing system had not been installed this time - nor was there any Word for Apple program. This meant I still couldn't write - nor could I send my work to my agent in London.

 I reinstalled the Italian language Word software. And although it corrected all my English and tried to make it Italian, I decided I could live with that.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


So we return to the dust from which we were formed. But before all that, we often plant veggies and herbs in the earth and they grow and nourish our bodies. Sometimes we sculpt figurative forms from the clay of the ground so they can nourish our souls. Sometimes we also write books, and put ourselves into words.

The day before yesterday a dear friend came to town from across the country. Through a series of serendipitous connections, he made it to his father's bedside twenty minutes before he died. His father had lived a great life. The whole family was there and they thought he had gone, until my friend's father took yet another last breath - and that one really was his last. My friend said all the family laughed with joy at that, because even in death this man was himself, a man with long stories to tell. And with that final pause and final breath, he said, "and another thing..."

I sculpted two days in a row, on Friday morning and then again Saturday afternoon. Chuck was back in the studio, after a few weeks absence following a nasty fall, and all of us were grateful to see him.

Both yesterday and today Ben and I went to a second hand book sale in the Community Center. We pored over books written years ago, and books written only last year, ones with inscriptions to people long since gone and ones with their dust jackets in tatters. There were military histories and books of paintings, and a folio edition of Oscar Wilde's Salome, that I couldn't pass up.

This morning at the farmer's market we bought lavender, basil, peppers and tomatoes in pots, thyme and lemon grass. I planted those a few hours ago, after returning from sculpture.

I also heard this week about the death of Joanne Randall - the wife of my beloved mentor Jim Randall - the first director of the Writing Program at Emerson, and editor of Pym Randall Press. Jim was my teacher and the first editor to publish me. I worked with him on the Writing Program at Emerson College. He had a rare book store Ahab, in Harvard Square. If you went in to visit you'd have to hunt for him him behind piles of books and every surface of the room was covered in them.

I heard of Joanne's passing, of all places, on Facebook. I had sent her a planter back in August, and it fit into one of the windows on her enclosed front porch in Kansas City. While she was ill, we continued to correspond.

In her last letter she reminisced as she often did, about meeting Jim. "They saw me passing outside their window and called out 'do you want to go to a party and meet new people?' Jim cornered me right away and pressed into my hand Ford's The Good Soldier. I read it that night and again on the train to Philadelphia that labor day weekend where my college roommate and her husband lived with their little girl while he was getting his PhD in Sociology at U of Penn and she was getting a Master's in Library Science. I told them I believed I had just met my future husband. We had a good giggle over that."

For several years Joanne and I would rendezvous at the Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge with another writer friend, Chris Brodien Jones. Sometimes my daughter Rozzie joined us. She loved to listen to Joanne's stories of the Boston literary scene and also her tales of supernatural visions and visitations. When I told Rozzie that Joanne had passed, Roz said, "I say Bon voyage! Her life in the other dimension sounded so fascinating, perhaps that is where she has gone!"

I've written about Jim in my novel (as yet to be published...) I think he'd be pleased by the characterization. I put him in a bookshop in Cambridge and gave him the name of Oliver. My friend Lisa, another wonderful writer, read my novel this week and offered a few suggestions. I'm about to go through it one more time and make revisions.

I don't know how these things connect, these plants and deaths, these books and clay, but somehow they do, in my mind. It's been a week of clay and earth and books, of loss that is overturning into growth.
Joanne, Chris and me at the Harvest in Cambridge

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Aside from the underlying outrage most of us feel about Trayvon Martin, and the fact that his killer has not been arrested, in recent weeks, he came to mind quite pointedly.


On one of the coldest mornings of the year, I was walking down Great Falls Street with my dog, when Darth Vader turned the corner of Fisher and Great Falls. He was huge, in a black parka and pants - also wearing a hood. He had heavy boots and a confident stride, and a black wool scarf wrapped over his face. His eyes were barely visible.

Darth saw me. Then waved cheerfully. As he approached, he pulled away the scarf with his big paw like mittens. That's when Darth turned into Ann, a friend and neighbor.

"You have no idea what you looked like just now," I told her. "I couldn't think who you were!"

"Oh," she laughed."I dress like this in the cold because I get terrible wind burn." We chatted briefly. She was on the way to the metro, going to a conference later in the week, up in Vermont.

"You can take your snowshoes," I said.

"Absolutely!" she answered.


A few days ago, as I walked down our trusting little tree lined road with my dog, an enormous diesel truck on outsized tires thundered towards me. It was painted flat black. Its tires were almost as big as me. Stashed on the roof were a number of threatening red canisters. The truck pulled up along side me and stopped. The driver leaned out the window, grinning. It was Russian Alex.

Russian Alex went to school with our son Alex, and still lives up the road with his family. When he was fifteen, and had first moved here from Moscow, we took him to fly a kite at West Potomac Park. He used to be a frequent visitor, and whenever we meet he's always very friendly. "Your truck is a monster!" I said. "It scared me."

"I know," he said smiling broadly. "It's a Ford Excursion."

"But it takes up most of the road. How does it feel to drive down here in this?"

"Oh, pretty big, pretty big," he chuckled amiably. He asked how I was, what the family was up to, sent his best to my son Alex. He revved the engine, and it roared to life. "See you later, and don't be afraid!" he called out, and as he pulled away, I noted a skull painted on the rear windscreen.


I was pulling into a parking garage at Cafe Deluxe in Tyson's Corner last month, when the SUV in front of me, stopped. I stopped as well. I waited. The SUV began to back up towards me. I lent on my horn. He didn't stop. He crunched right into me.

He got out of his car, a plump white guy in chinos and Izod shirt. "Didn't you see my signal lights?" he yelled accusingly.

"Clearly not," I said. "Didn't you see me stopped behind you?"

"Unbelievable!" he shouted.

I got out of my car, trembling, and went round the front to inspect for damage. In the dim lighting I didn't see any.

"My car's ok. Yours is ok too," he said.

"It is?"

"All right then," he said, and stalked away.

I felt threatened by his attitude. Stupid of me, but true. I remembered in Rome, when cars got pranged, people didn't pay much attention. I should have asked for his insurance information. But I didn't.

He got back into his car, and drove away, shaking his head at my stupidity (and his own good luck).

Later I discovered that my car had been badly damaged. The insurance covered it - but the bill was $1400.00. I shouldn't have trusted that white guy in chinos.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


"What's going on?" I asked the woman who was bending my arm backwards.

"I'm tricking your brain,"she said. "Your brain thinks it is still pushing your arm forward, and when the muscles are tired, they relax. That way I can make them move further than they thought they could go! Sneaky, huh?"

I've been going to physical therapy for a month now, for my shoulder. I still can't move my left arm its full range. Still can't bend my elbow and clasp the other arm behind my back without pain.

On Tuesday, Yvonne told me to push towards her. After I stopped, she pushed my arm in the opposite direction. Less pain. We were also getting further than usual.

Tricking my brain, she said. Hard to wrap my brain around the concept of tricking my brain, when I'm already tricking my brain on one level. When pain urges me to stop moving the arm I've been told to disregard the message my brain is giving me. And push through the pain.

Now we are taking it still further. Now, I'm tricking myself into moving one way, while really I intend to move in exactly the opposite direction, except without my noticing!

Hang on - who is in control here? Me or my brain? And which brain? My conscious brain, or my muscle memory?

Afterwards, I sit under a big bag of ice, the 'stim' therapy controls in hand. It reminds me of the electric shock dog control devises some people favor. I can turn it up and zap myself, make myself twitch and the icebag shake, if that's what I want.

A little old lady maneuvers in with a walker. She's dressed in shorts and over-the-knee white tights - and making extremely slow progress. Tortoise like, she heads to a stationary bike. An elderly companion follows behind, and sits on a chair some distance off, waiting.

Adam, a physical therapist, helps the old lady onto a bike. It takes a long time but he is patient. He instructs her to press the pedals forward as far as she can. Then back. She follows the instructions with modest results.

Meanwhile Bob, a guy who's here to work on his knees, waits near the old lady's companion. Bob is a big empty sack of a white guy in shapeless trousers and tee shirt, with unshaven face and double chin. The old lady's companion is black and lanky, wearing a baseball cap. Together they gaze out the windows, onto a spaghetti of highway construction and Route 495.

"You know," says one, "Sometimes this looks like the opposite of progress. What in the world...?"

"I know what you mean," says the other. "I worked in Springfield for fifteen years. Now I won't go near that highway. Now I work in Manassas."

"I hear you," says the first. "I never take these roads if I can help it, except on a Sunday when I go to church."

"What in the world are they thinking?"

"No idea," says the other. "It's an engineer's vision - an autistic kind of vision - If you took the wrong road you'd end up in Toronto. What in the world are they thinking..."

I laugh along with them, making my own comments in agreement. But I'm an outpost to the discourse, off to the side, a minor player underneath an icepack, dialing up the 'stim' - or the electrical shock that goes into my muscles. (Honestly, while it's a diversion, I have no idea what good it does.)

Meanwhile, the little old lady continues pedaling forward and back on her bike. It's hard. And incremental.

I came home and told this story to my husband Ben. "You are making great progress, Manda!" he said. "A few weeks ago, that whole scene would have really bummed you out."

I guess he's right. With small steps forward, we can trick our brains into complying with our intentions. Too bad our brains aren't already on our side.