Memoir Writing Workshop

Since October 31, 2018, I’ve been writing a memoir. The last 9 months have been much more challenging after a fast start. I’m into the hundreds of pages, and various sections are polished more than others. I can barely see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know that when my first draft is done, it’ll require a complete rewrite.

After the Discover Prompts challenge in April, I signed up for a memoir challenge with Shut Up & Write. I belong to my local Shut Up & Write chapter in New Haven that meets every week on Thursdays, and I had just started going regularly after some spotty attendance. But then the in-person meetings were canceled. Shut Up & Write had a 10-day Memoir Writing Challenge. There were quite a few participants. Each day, some questions were asked and then we’d respond in various ways, whether talking about the project or actually writing something that appeared like a narrative.

I took on a challenge project, the last part of my larger memoir. I had been putting off thinking about it because it contains a fair bit of personal trauma. When I first started writing my memoir, which deals with significant relationship upset and traumas in my life, I became ill – suffering extreme stress and anxiety, vertigo and other stress-related symptoms. On top of that, I had a personal crisis at my work that changed my job prospects and led me to abandon my teaching career. This, meant, embracing my life as a writer far sooner than was financially possible.

But here I am. I’m writing every day, I’m getting paid (a bit) on Medium, and I sold my first article in February. I’m making strides to becoming the writer I want to be.

Now if I can only finish (and sell) this memoir. It’ll be enough at first just to finish it. The quest is all.

Please share this blog with others who are struggling with mental health issues in their own lives or with their relatives, with other struggling writers/bloggers, and with those with unclear paths forward. Soon I will offer an email list with weekly or monthly updates. Until then, stay safe and well.

Discover Prompts-Day 30: Grateful

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash.

I know that I have much to be grateful for in this life – a roof over my head, food in the cupboard and refrigerator, love in my life, a young dog. I’m not food insecure or housing insecure. Yet, I’m close to it.

After a 33-year career in higher education, I have had difficulty finding a stable job. When my adjunct teaching assignments began to dry up in 2017, I lost 2/3 of my income in 2 weeks. Searching for anything at all, it took me 6 months to get a job at Starbucks, which I started in Jan 2018. On my first day of work, I had serious flu and had to delay my start day by a few days. I didn’t much like my work at Starbucks, but near the end of the first month, I could see the light at the end of the training tunnel. I preferred gathering foods and working the cash register and cleaning to making the drinks.

I found a job that paid $2.00/hr more at a busy deli counter at a grocery store, so I had no choice but to take it, even though my time at Starbucks was short. That store faced some cutbacks as well and for a while, my work was part-time, until one week, I didn’t get any assignments at all. Then I was transferred to another store, the largest in the chain (Sprouts Farmers Market) with a large island for a deli-counter. I had full-time work and it was difficult work. I mostly worked the closing shift, which brought me into conflict with the young people closing, who wanted to cut corners with cleaning and close up the counter much earlier than the store closed, so they could get out of there. I preferred to do a good job and make sure everything was neat and clean by the book so as not to jeopardize health.

I liked the deli job, especially working with customers or making sure tasks got done through the day. But it was grueling work and hard on my body. I quit that job to move across country, from San Diego to New Haven, picking up one teaching job on the way.

I had spent the 6 months working at Sprouts looking for more teaching work. I was hired by Southern Connecticut State University to teach 2 sections in the Fall and 1 in the Spring. I got the call on our first day traveling cross country, in two cars, with each car loaded to the roof with our personal belongings. When we reached Connecticut, I traveled to Norwalk to interview for another teaching job. I didn’t get that job, but stuck my head in the office for a developmental writing position. I got that section, a 6-unit course. So between the 2 courses at Southern, and the 1 6-unit course at Norwalk and an online class finishing my contract at San Diego Mesa College, I had a full-time teaching load.

But I no longer had health insurance and had to buy insurance. Almost half of my income went to health insurance. I would receive 70-80% of those monies back several months after completing my assignment, provided I didn’t miss a payment by a single day.

Adjunct teaching is a hand-to-mouth existence. My teaching experiences ended badly, with a disagreement with the militant director at Norwalk and practically comatose students and a curriculum that was far advanced for them, and an unresponsive administration at Southern in the wake of a hostile student. I served out my time for another semester with a mostly silent class.

Only teaching one class, I now had to file for unemployment and Husky health, the free health insurance for people with no money. I was suffering from nerves, anxiety, caused in part by the teaching situations. I signed up with New Haven Works, an organization that is supposed to help New Haven residents find jobs. My job coach stood me up for appointments three times. After the third time, I called her and she said, “What?” on the phone… “Oh, it’s you,” she said in a deflated voice. I raised holy hell and wrote to the executive director to get a new job coach. Finally, I got a temporary job at Sterling Memorial library at Yale University. After two months, I was switched from a temp worker to a limited duration employee at the end of May. That gave me health benefits again – GOOD health benefits. Plus I finally got my old 401K back into a system to be managed, and I was earning decent money without having to take work home – no more grading.

So I took up writing, which was, after all, my goal when I started college in 1981.

Now my Yale job is ending. Today is the last day, even though we haven’t gone to work for about 6 weeks due to COVID-19. The job was 5 weeks from being completed, but now the project has been canceled. All the jobs I have applied for to try to get full-time work – I’ve been passed over.

So I’m basically in the same position as before, 33-year career in higher education, with no prospects, a potential residence move coming up at the end of July and no idea how I’m going to earn money.

But it’s writing I’m most interested in right now. I’m perhaps 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through a memoir, with a great idea, which I need to execute and then contact agents to sell it.

Am I grateful? Most every day that it’s not raining, the girlfriend, the dog-Herman-and I walk in the woods at Guilford for some fresh air and exercise. The woods are beautiful. Spring is coming but it’s not in full bloom yet. It’s taking its sweet time getting here, which is fine, because that means it’s not getting hot yet. I’m grateful when I’m out on the trail and realize that I’m not sick, that I have food, that I have a roof over my head and someone to love who loves me back and Herman the Dachshund to accompany us.

For most everyone in the world right now, it’s not clear where the next meal, the next paycheck, the next opportunity is coming from.

Gratitude is foreign to me. I’m not ungrateful. I’m just not philosophical about it. I think the universe is more neutral and benign than the word “grateful” means. Grateful to whom or to what?

I didn’t think that life would throw me aside like this, nor that I’d have to scrap and struggle to get by after dedicated so much of my life to students and learning and caring for people.

I’ve chosen my paths through life. Not everyone has the freedom to do that. And I’ve been kicked and passed over and pushed aside. But I’ve never given up, and I’ve always tried to keep on the positive side of what’s coming next. That has kept me going.

It would be nice to know that in my retirement years, I can relax and not worry about paying the rent or putting food on the table, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, not yet anyway.

I’m one best-seller away from saying – “okay, I’m grateful.” Until then, it’s wait and see.

I am grateful to my readers. From here on out, my writing focuses more on memoir. And I’d like to hear from you. Let me know what you think, and I’ll keep writing more of what appeals to you.

Be safe and be well.

Discover Prompts-Day 29: List

Photo by Little John on Unsplash.

For my entire life, I’ve been a list-maker. From the Book of Lists in the 70s and 80s to lists of games or pennies missing from a collection, or baseball cards, to daily to-do lists and master lists for large projects, I’m all about the list. I’m also a wizard of words, looking up words and word histories for the sheer joy of knowing all I can about a word.

The word “list” in an intransitive verb form means “to tilt to one’s side” or as a noun means “a tilt,” usually with regard to boats or ships. The word comes from, “Perhaps an unexplained spelling variant of Middle English lysten ‘to please, desire, wish, like'” with a sense development from the notion of “leaning” toward what one desires. Compare “incline” as in “We’re inclined to favor Beethoven over Bach.”

Of course all of this leads to an event, as it always does.

So this happened. On a weekend sailing outing on Pegasus, our 38 ft Hans Christian Mark II sailboat, it had grown late and we came in from a long day outside of San Diego Bay. We had plans to moor in Glorietta Bay, just on the south side of the Coronado Bay bridge. There one could moor a boat for the night, take a quick dinghy ride to shore for a walk and a meal at a nice restaurant or just take in the lights of San Diego from the boat. It was rarely crowded and quite private and serene.

We made it back under the bridge after dark, and we were tired from a long day of sailing. I located the yellow markers for the mooring zone and we dropped anchor, backed up to secure it and checked our position. After an hour, we re-checked our position and hadn’t moved. So we readied the dinghy and went into town for a bit. We came back and were exhausted, ready for a good night’s sleep.

Near 4:00 am, we woke from a rattle in the boat. We woke to find ourselves listing at near 30 degrees. The list increased rapidly until we were almost at a 45 degree angle. This made sleeping impossible as we were half upright in the berth. The rattle was pots and pans and equipment falling out of cupboards on the boat. The tide had gone out. We had moored on the wrong side of the yellow mooring buoys, and we were now on the land side of a large sand spit.

We weren’t in any danger, but we had to secure items so they didn’t fall off the boat or breakable items didn’t fall out of the cupboards. Traversing the deck at a 45 degree angle is treacherous. A wind had kicked up as well as if a storm were blowing in. After securing items, we tried to sleep some more, but it was almost impossible as there was no way to lay flat. We dozed a bit though.

We woke in the morning to a strong spring storm. The wind was pushing the boat into the shore, and we were dug in quite deep into the sand and mud bottom. We would have to wait until the tide rose enough to set the boat upright. The weather forecast called for increasing storm activity through the day. We weren’t far from our marina, but it would take us a little while working against the strength of this wind. But first we had to get off this spit of land.

Once the list had subsided, we tried the engine, but the propeller was buried in the bottom. There was nothing to do but wait. We noticed that when we tried to move the boat, we were pushed hard to land. This was going to be a challenge. Once we felt the boat become buoyant again, we tried starting the engine again. We were immediately pushed toward land. We had to start it and gun it in reverse to give us clearance, and get enough motion going that it would counteract this strong wind. Even with sails down, the boat served as a wall to be pushed to land.

We gunned it and slammed it into reverse. The propeller was still in sand, but more toward the surface. It churned up the sand and water and we headed backwards. It was enough to get the boat some clearance so that we could then put it in forward and make a sharp turn to head away from land. As we turned, we were broadside to the wind and were pushed strongly to land. The propeller starting churning up more sand and laboring. If we didn’t clear the land, we could bend the prop and propeller shaft. But fortunately, we made the turn and headed into the main part of the bay.

The short distance across the bay and down 1/4 mile took us 2 hours, a very slow crawl, straight into the wind. At one point, we were being pushed backwards by the force of the wind despite our strong diesel engine.

We got in our slip in the marina and safely tied up. The trip was exhausting and we were dead tired. The next day, as we tried to retie the boat, we had an accident. A small screw had fallen out of the gear-shifting mechanism in the steering column, nothing we could have ever known. We pulled out of our slip to reset the boat, and as we were positioned where we wanted to be, I shifted from reverse into forward and gave it more gas. Except nothing happened. I gave it more gas, and before I knew it, we had accelerated backwards. We slammed into the back of a boat, about 5 slips down from our own. We mangled their dingy hoist and ladder and chipped their hull a bit. Thank goodness for boat insurance.

The crash sent marina folks scurrying to help. There must have been 10 or 12 people turned out to help. We turned off the engine. There was still a brisk wind, but we hand-over-fisted the boat behind the other boats, pulling on lines and shrouds, to tug our boat into the slip. It would be some weeks before we could figure out how to fix the shifting mechanism and thus, we were in effect grounded for a while.

Screws fall out everyday, it’s an imperfect world. At least in the slip of our marina, we would stay upright and not list to starboard or port. But I did make a new list that day: things to fix and do to secure items on the boat and file an insurance claim.

Discover Prompts-Day 27: Team

Photo by Amanda Wolbert on Unsplash.

My first love is baseball, but I didn’t start playing organizing Little League until I was 10 years old, a couple years later than my peers. I was a bit bigger than the 8 year olds, but very skinny. I was also a little stronger, so I could make the throw from 3rd to 1st and won the coveted spot as the 3rd baseman.

I wanted to pitch, but everyone did. I just wasn’t very good.

Our manager, Mr. Nelson, was smart. He drafted mostly 10 year olds. And then we had a couple of kids get hurt, so he recruited two very good players from outside our league, kids who could throw the ball so fast that the other teams could hardly hit them.

Our team was called the Penguins, and I was number 10, just like Ron Cey, the 3rd baseman on the Dodgers at that time. Obviously, our team colors were black and white.

Because of the unfair advantage of the ringer pitchers, our team went 18-0. We lost 4 of 5 games in grapefruit league practice games, and then we won the 1st half with a 9-0 record and we won the 2nd half with a 9-0 record.

We had a full contingent of teams, 8 or 10 teams. Our chief rival was the Eagles, coached by Mr. Sherman. We had two playoff games, one to end the first half and one for the championship. In the 1st half, the coach’s son, Richard, wanted to pitch. The Eagles hit 3 triples and 1 single off of him to open the game and the manager took Richard out as pitcher. He was angry and threw his glove at the fence. He was normally our catcher.

We held the Eagles the rest of the game and we won the game 4-3. We won the championship as well with a 4-2 victory. The teams were evenly matched.

What struck me the most about this first team I was on is that we weren’t that much better than the other teams. We had one or two great players and the rest of us were just kids. The great players certainly helped us go undefeated, but we also learned to play baseball as a team. We learned to bunt, we learned strategies, we listened to our coaches and ran the bases well.

During the 1st half playoff game, I took a sharp grounder at 3rd base that hit a rock and bounced over my glove and smashed into my chin. I picked the ball up and still made the throw (and out) at 1st base. But the manager took me out of the game. He put in my friend, Stephen, who usually played 2 innings to the 4 I played at 3rd base. While Stephen was in there, he made a running catch for a foul ball at 3rd that I probably would have missed (I was not good at catching fly balls). That helped stop a rally. My jaw was seriously hurt that I couldn’t open it when we had our pizza party after the game.

We also had great players in the outfield, making the catches when we needed them.

In all, it was always a team effort. One of the times I remember the best was our 3-2 win over the Pelicans. The Pelicans were really bad, next to last, but one day, they played us tight. We won the game, but the coach chewed us out after the game, telling us he was disappointed in how we played. I understand that, but as the player who always won best sportsmanship, I knew that Mr. Nelson was wrong to chew us out. He acted just like the parents in the movie Bad News Bears. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he was too competitive.

My 2nd year of baseball, I was drafted by Mr. Sherman on the Wildcats in the minor leagues, rather than the Farm league. Mr. Sherman was a teacher and a much nicer man than Mr. Nelson. I had more fun on Mr. Sherman’s team, learned the game better, played different positions, and remember my time more fondly. The outcome was the same. Mr. Nelson coached the Bobcats to 1st place, and Mr. Sherman coached the Wildcats to 2nd place, just like in the Farm league.

I enjoyed my time in organized ball, but I wasn’t very good since I was so skinny for so long. So when I was in my late teenaged years just starting college, I volunteered with a neighbor to help coach his son’s team and eventually, I coached my own team and joined the board of directors, hiring the umpires, holding umpiring clinics, and umpiring myself, as well as helping out all over the fields as much as I could. It was my way of giving back.

I grew up in Granada Hills, and Granada Hills Little League won the Little League World Series the year I was born. That must have been the first sign that I would be a baseball fan.

Someday, I will write to tell you about my favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I’m still stinging from two straight World Series loss and a loss to the eventual champions, the Washington Nationals in the playoffs last season. I have much to say about the Houston *Asterisks cheating scandal and the Boston Red Sox. But win or lose, I’ll root for my favorite team, the Dodgers, for all time.

Discover Prompts – Day 25: Magic

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash.

My brother had a collection of magic tricks. He kept them in a large, worn orange box about the size used for cakes. It was deep and had tape on the corners of the lid to hold it together. It was forbidden for any of us to go in it. So of course I did.

He was 10 years older than me, so when I started exploring our garage loaded with discarded junk, he was out and about with his friends playing basketball or baseball or riding bikes. I remember seeing all the brightly colored objects in that box: fans with colored panels that broke apart when you opened it, a long multi-colored scarf, red spongy balls and peach colored cups, a silver palm buzzer, a little blue box with a cube inside with colored circles on each face. My favorite toy was the small guillotine for a thumb. I never knew how my brother cut his thumb off with that. But he did. I saw it for myself when he pulled the tip of his thumb away from his hand with his other hand.

My family encouraged all of our hobbies, and magic was one of them for my brother. When he moved out, I inherited most of his stuff, his comic books and baseball cards, his magic set and marionettes. Or rather, they stayed in the garage and I played with them frequently.

My parents were occasionally invited to the Magic Castle in Hollywood. My understanding is that it was a private club and could be attended by invitation only by someone who belonged to the club. They went for my great grandmother’s birthday one year. She was a short, stopped woman, who drank a lot of tea and smoked a lot of cigarettes. She didn’t like us kids at all. The only people she really liked were my mom, her oldest granddaughter, and my dad. We had added a room onto our house for her as she got older and infirm. She had jet black hair into her 80s, which made my sister think she was a Native American. Her name was Grandma Wurm.

When they went to the Magic Castle, they sat at a bar and had drinks. Ever so slowly, the barstool she sat on lowered itself nearer the floor, so that after a few drinks, she was reaching up at arm’s length to reach her drink on top of the bar. My dad got a big kick out of that in retelling the trick.

I learned to do a few magic tricks over the years, pulling quarters from kids ears, palming ping pong balls, and guessing cards from a stacked deck.

I’m not sure what happened to the box of magic tricks. It was probably donated when we cleaned my mother’s house after she died, or more likely it had been sold at a garage sale years before.

I still see that orange box in my mind, the color of an orange, but faded with pieces of cardboard showing through at the corners. In my mind’s eye, magic will live forever.

Discover Prompts: Day 23 – Note

Today is April 24. One more catch-up prompt and I’m caught up! This entry is for the word “note.”

Today’s the day you start a diary. Take note of how you’re feeling. As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. Remember: magnificent, really.

On October 31, 2018, I started writing a memoir. I was in a cigar bar and the words started spilling out. A structure spoke to me, a scene came to my head like the opening of a movie. And I wrote and wrote, and I’ve been working on the memoir ever see, except for a 6-month layoff from Aug 2019 – Jan 2020. I’m about 200 pages in, a new structure has evolved, and I think it could be an important work of literature, not just my clunky little memoir about my clunky little life.

At the time I started, I was still teaching freshman English at Southern Connecticut State University and at Norwalk Community College. Both assignments really sucked. I had an awful commute and a worse director at Norwalk CC, who was no help and one of the most arrogant people I have ever worked with, condescending to students and colleagues alike. The students were not ready for college and the curriculum was laid out in military fashion (surprise – the director had been a military man), completely inflexible and aimed at not helping students improve but exposing what they lacked.

At Southern, I had a hostile student, a veteran who went off the deep-end. Three straight days she had confrontations with me in front of other students, until she blew up. I had to put a desk between me and her. Another student in the class took video because the student was out of control. Two classmates tried to calm her down and walk her away. All of it led to the Student Conduct office, meetings with the Freshman director and Chair of the department and so on. But the student was cleared to return to class, despite that I felt unsafe in my work place. I went to HR and gave a statement. Neither the Student Conduct office nor HR every followed up. The dean’s office said the student could not be kicked out of class because – she had paid for it. I was shocked. So if you pay, you can get away with bad behavior that impacts the rest of the students in the class. Absurd.

That was the end of the line for me. I waited 6 months for a response from administration, and finally wrote them a letter. They never addressed the fact that they didn’t follow up with me. I had a contract to teach one more class, which I did. Then I quit. I quit a 25-year adjunct college teaching career, a total of 33-years in higher education. I would not be a part of that problem.

Those situations led to panic attacks, vertigo, a lot of symptoms that seemed physical. But once the semester was over, I got a complete medical workup and everything came out fine. In short, it was anxiety. Which brings me back to my memoir.

My memoir is about my brother – a hippie turned conservation fundamentalist preacher who then suffered from major depressive disorder and after many suicide attempts and a 13-year struggle, killed himself. We were practically twins, except for our 10-year age gap (I’m younger). So when he got sick, I got worried about when it was my time. It doesn’t work that way. But that’s not the whole story.

I set out to be a writer, but I’ve been constantly interrupted by the people in my lives who have mental illness. My brother, who was followed by two of his children who also committed suicide. And then there’s my 2nd wife, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but her psychiatrist and her counselor never told her – nor me (yay HIPPA!). Imagine having a serious medical condition and your doctor keeping it from you for 5 years. That’s what happened. And then my sister going off the deep end and stealing from the estate after my parents died. It was a decade of loss, continuous loss. Jobs, financial security, everything wiped down the drain.

Until finally, all I have is what I can write.

A 33-year career in higher education, respectable jobs and a 25-year English teaching career – and it took me 6 months to find a Starbucks job! Something is wrong in the state of Denmark and California and Connecticut and these United States of America.

So now I work on my memoir and wonder about my next paying gig.

I know how to write. I studied The Waste Land in school, trained under a professor – who also committed suicide – who was well-regarded internationally for his work. Eliot’s poem serves as the metaphorical structure for my memoir. It fits perfectly, uncannily so.

But it’s not my personal story I’m interested in telling so much as making art from it.

The note at the top of this entry reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s book. I’ve read a dozen books on writing memoir and many memoirs as well while working on my own. I was a writing professor, so I know how to write. But it’s working through the emotions, almost reliving these events that have slowed my writing to a crawl, that and finding time to blog and write articles for Medium and work and have a life, too.

I won’t start a diary today. I write so much every day that it’s already a record of my life. I need to keep better records of my daily work. But what I’m reminded about is that my story matters. The story must be told. I must tell the story.

And in doing so, I must hit all the right notes. Will you read it?

Discover Prompts – Day 21 – Instrument

Today is April 24, the day after Shakespeare’s birth and death day. I’m still catching up – so close – with Discover Prompts. For day 21, the word is Instrument.

In the previous post, you learned that I play the piano and that it’s one of the great joys of my life. I’m not very good, but I can read and I can practice until I can make a passable show at it, for my ears. I still play with far too many errors to really play for anyone, even people I’m very close to They’ll be polite, but I really don’t play well. But once I had another instrument in my house – a saxophone.

I’ve been married twice before. Wife #2 thrived on music. She loved Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band, especially Clarence Clemons and his saxophone. After we bought a money-pit house in Kansas, we were quite poor. Springsteen was making his way through the U.S. on The Rising tour and stopping in Kansas City, so I scrapped together enough to get tickets and just enough more to buy souvenirs at the show. We barely had anything for the toll roads to get there.

Our seats were alllll the way in the back of the stadium against the wall, the furthest possible from the stage that you could get. And no one was sitting around us The arena was only 3/4 full at most. While I was off buying surprise souvenirs, I came back to find some strange men talking to my wife. They said they were with the band and wished to move us closer to the stage. It sounded……hokey, unreal. But we moved and got good seats about 10 rows from the stage on the left. People down front were smoking pot. My wife had developed one of her famous stress headaches, but the pot smell wafting in the air cured it.

It was a magical concert, not quite the 4-hour legendary concerts of his youth, but it was longer than most concerts I had ever been to.

Inspired by the events, I decided to rent a saxophone for my wife for Christmas and pay for lessons. We were really struggling financially, but I made some changes to the budget to accommodate the rental and the lessons. We already had an electric piano, and there was no reason she couldn’t learn to play an instrument if she wanted.

I was so excited. I told my family about it, and they were thrilled with the idea as well. Music was a part of our lives. Christmas came and my wife was overjoyed to the point of tears. She didn’t really know what to make of it. I had arranged for some starting lessons, and the guy was an old jazz musician who went over the basic with her.

My wife told her dad about the saxophone. She had recently borrowed money from him because of our financial straits, and I didn’t know about that. He scolded her. “How do you have money for saxophone lessons but can’t pay your bills?” She was devastated, but he held great sway over her and often interfered with her pursuits of happiness.

I tried to help her learn, since I could read music, but she got frustrated at my help. So I back off and let her deal with it on her own. Within a month, with tears in her eyes, she took the saxophone back. It was one of the saddest pre-divorce days in my life.

She had always dreamed of playing the saxophone. And she gave up on this dream for good.

Discover Prompts – Day 20 – Music

I’ll be caught up today with Discover Prompts. Root canal interruption but no excuses. Today is April 24, the day after Shakespeare’s birth and death days.

Sometimes I write just to write, which is what prompts are good for. But this has got to be the least inspired piece of writing. Forgive me, dear readers.

Music – Where to start? Music means so much to so many people. I know people for whom music must be playing at all times, for whom music is placed on a loop and listened to unconsciously, who listen to music to get them through tough times, through break-ups, who go to clubs to move their bodies to a beat. Music has never been that way for me.

When I was growing up, our house was filled with music. My dad played the piano every day. He was a great player, but not a polished player. He could play anything. He would hear it once, fiddle with the melody and then he’d find a bass to accompany it and he’d have it for the rest of his life. My mom made sure that my dad always had a piano. So we all took lessons.

I took lessons longer than most but I don’t play as well because I never practiced. I went through periods when I practiced. But I don’t play well. Right now, I don’t even have a piano. The last piano I had was an electric console but I sold it because it wasn’t right for my apartment. That was 5 years ago. And right now, I’m itching to get another piano.

My dad could play any instrument handed to him. We had a variety of instruments in our house – castenets, bongo drums, sticks, a zither, guitar, ukulele, recorder. But it was the piano we all gravitated toward, fought over. Whenever one kid wanted to practice, there was a fight for the piano.

In school, we had music lessons in 5th grade, instruments in class, and we learned songs and had choir for assemblies and christmas concerts. I definitely have good associations with music and many stories involving music. I really can’t tell you why I don’t listen to more music these days.

I listened to and played a lot of classical music. I still like to listen, especially Vladimir Horowitz – anything really. I studied Beethoven, but I love Mozart and Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, Debussey, and on and on. Of course, I spent my teenage years listening to classic rock, except it wasn’t classic then – I was a little late for the Beatles but they were always all over the airwaves. The 1970s superbands were part of my adolescence, with the Eagles and the Beach Boys right near the top, and of course Journey, and Queen, and Foreigner, and later U2. I came to the Grunge movement late – turned off the radio for grad school. But I love Nirvana and then there’s Madonna – my fav.

But I don’t know why I don’t turn music on more regularly. The girlfriend listens to podcasts so there’s not much music coming from her either.

I had two traumatic experiences with music. When I was 7, I had my first recital. My piano teacher was a larger lady, more than 300 lbs. I went to her funeral and they buried her in a piano case. She came to the house and sat in a small chair – we had chairs not a piano bench, and she taught all of us to read music well, but she didn’t teach us to keep time well at all. For my first recital, I was playing the first part of Fur Elise, by heart. It was one page long. I had memorized it and practiced and practiced. It’s one of the few pieces that I can still play today. But on that day, the gremlins were at work.

The recital was in a bank with marble floors and a great echo. I had to dress up and wear a tie and nice shirt. Everyone was dressed fancy and chairs were set up all over the bank lobby. There were quite a few kids playing that day. When it was my turn, I gave my music to my teacher and sat down and played. I did well, except I blanked out at the last line. I stopped. I couldn’t remember how to pick up again. I had to ask for my music and looked at it and remembered and finished the last line. We went out for ice cream afterwards, but I was inconsolable. It was quite embarrassing.

I missed the day between elementary school and jr high school when instruments were assigned, so all through Jr. High school and High School, I didn’t get to play in band or orchestra, even though compared to many of my peers, I was quite advanced in piano since I started taking lessons at age 4.

But I was friends with many of the band geeks. In high school, a classmate who played the viola asked me to accompany her for a competition. She gave me a long and complicated piece of music by Mozart (I was used to playing Beethoven), and we only had 3 weeks to practice. Every time I tried to get together with her to practice, she was too busy..

I worked on that piece diligently, working with my piano teacher who lived across the street in his studio with his two big black Steinways side by side. For my part, I had the intro, about 1 page of music. Then we had 12 other pages and then back through the first 4. Our recital was at a busy school for a music competition. My entire family showed up and no one showed up for Carolyn whose competition it was.

I started playing. I screwed it up so badly that when it was time for her to come in, she didn’t know where I was and scowled at me and told me I needed to start over. So I started again. We made it through, although I did a horrible job. My family applauded wildly. What was most embarrassing is that the judge at the competition gave me an impromptu piano lesson on playing thirds together to make sure both notes played at the same time – evidently that grated on his nerves.

Despite all, playing the piano is the second greatest stress relief I have in my life, beyond sailing. I can’t wait to get a piano again.

Discover Prompts: Day 17 – Distance

Today is April 23, Shakespeare’s birth and death days. I’m still catching up on Discover Prompts: Day 17 – Distance.

A couple days ago, I saw the word “distance” in Discover Prompts and immediately thought of the book, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I was working on a Ph.D. long ago and running into problems. My dissertation chair suggested the book to me. I don’t remember if I read it then, but at some other time I did read it. My mind travels back to that book occasionally. As I remember, the philosophy is to keep going, one step in front of the other. It’s lonely work, but it’s work that’s worth it.

I’ve never been much of a runner, but I understand stamina and taking a step, and another, and another. It seems that that’s all I’ve ever done. But then a chasm will appear. The path will end at a cliff, or a crack in the earth. I look down and it’s black, a long deep crevice. If I had been running, I would have missed it, would have run right into the hole, still churning my legs as I was propelled by the force of gravity down down down, still running, with my little jogging shorts and thin wicking t-shirt, and brightly accented running shoes. Or could I have, like a cartoon, run through the air and made it to the other side? The distance to the other side doesn’t seem that far, but it’s not jumpible. It’s impassable, a word so close to impossible. Some paths aren’t meant to be finished.

If I have any qualms at all about my writing, it’s achieving the necessary distance from real world events to be able to write about it. It’s been 15 years since the major events of the memoir I’m working on, 10 years for some of it, and 5 years for the rest, as if every 5 years, another impassable crevice stretches the crust of the earth, like a fresh hot cookie being pulled apart. I admire Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking so much, her ability to effectively obtain objective distance in the wake of unspeakable emotional pain. But then, she wrote the book, so it’s not unspeakable.

Come hell or high water, or impassable cracks in the earth’s crust, I will finish this memoir.

Discover Prompts: Day 11 – Bite.

I had braces for 5 years. I got braces (and glasses) during the first week of my senior year in high school (rah!). The braces straightened my teeth but did nothing for my bite. Try as we might (aggressive retainer, palate expander, rubber bands rubber bands rubber bands), we could never correct the cross-bite.

I say “we” because dental and orthodonture work is a collaborative venture between doctor and patient. I should say “he” because despite his fancy office and degrees, he didn’t fix my bite! I did all that was asked of me.

So when I came down with TMJ disorder, he pulled out all the stops to get me appointments and set up consultations with doctors and surgeons to avoid getting sued.

Since I was 21 years old (35 years now), I’ve suffered from a bad jaw, due to a horrible cross-bite. Sometimes I don’t realize how chronic the pain is. I can’t just eat foods. I have to plan what I’m going to eat so as not to set my jaw off. I spent 10 years post-surgery starting when I was 22 eating a no-chew diet of soft foods. The surgeon did arthroscopic surgery to clean out the joint. In doing so, they cleaned out the fluid and the debris and discovered that my discs were mangled, all corroded and wrinkled like an 80 year olds, with holds in them. I can only imagine what they look like now, if they’re even still there, given all the popping and cracking and POPPING and CRACKING that they do constantly.

The surgeon said that the surgery would last 10 years, and true to that, 10 years to the day of the surgery, my jaw popped/cracked big again. It was 10 years of eating soft foods, practically drinking my food. I finally said “enough!” and I started eating what I want and managing my symptoms.

On top of all of that, I was part of a study of TMJ during the 80s and 90s, and after 7 years, they finally published their article: they concluded that the surgeries that so many people had gotten were no longer advisable. TMJ problems, for the majority of cases, could be resolved with physical therapy and behavior modification. Thanks. Thanks a lot, guys.

But I’m not here today to discuss my bite, but that of my first dog, Tippy, a mutt that we got for free in front of the grocery store when I was 3 or 4 or 5 years old. Tippy was my dog (the other kids had a brown curly haired dog named Chipper. Tippy was half Pekingese and half Cocker Spaniel. She was black except for a while flash on her chest and a white tip on the end of her tail. She had the most severe underbite I had ever seen in a dog. Her bottom jaw stuck out and showed constantly. She wasn’t pretty, but I loved her and she loved me. She would lick me all over and would race around the house with zoomies when I played with her.

The rest of the family tolerated Tippy. She got fat through her life and she was a barker. If someone knocked on the door, she would keep up a ruckus until my dad yelled at her to stop. He’d take a step toward her and she’d run, a result of too many newspaper swats on the butt to shut her up. We had one particularly loud set of friends, the Guilmettes, and Tippy did not like Colin Guilmette. When they visited, Tippy would bark and bark and bark, even when we put her into the back bedroom. When my dad scolded her, she would get back at him by jumping on their bed and peeing in the middle of it.

My aunt lived with us for a while and she thought Tippy was a hoot. She used a phrased, “You can’t teach a dog new tricks,” which I didn’t really know, which set me off when Tippy was about 8 years old to teach her new tricks. I taught her to roll over on command and to sit. I was probably inspired watching my brother train his new Golden Retriever.

I came home from school one day and saw my mom sobbing uncontrollably on the phone, so much so that I thought my dad had died. Chipper was floating on his side in the swimming pool, dead. He was old and blind and mostly deaf. He wasn’t too steady anymore. It’s likely he had a heart attack and fell in the pool. But of course, my family decided that Tippy pushed him in and that’s the story that stuck. I had to pull the stiffened corpse of Chipper from the pool and wrap him in an old woolen blanket so we could dispose of him.

Most of the time when I played with Tippy, I got right down on the ground and wrestled with her. My aunt Marilynn also loved Tippy, and Tippy would give her lots of affection too. My friends would all see me get down on the ground to get kisses from Tippy. They wanted to do the same. But she would stiffen up when they got down on the ground with her. And it happened, again, and again, and again.

Tippy would go on to bite every single one of my friends in the face. She wouldn’t break skin, but she would snap and create a lot of noise and there’d be a raspberry red mark on their cheek. It would happen so quickly. And with that Pekingese underbite of hers, it was like watching the Alien monster snap suddenly, all teeth and horrorshow. I tried to see what caused it. Once I saw that one of my friends put his hand down on her tail as he was lowering himself to her, and that set her off. But I don’t think each of my friends did that exact same thing. In all, she bit about dozen of my friends in the face. But never me. Tippy had nothing but kisses for me.

I was away at school when Tippy’s time came. She grew fatter and fatter, though she was always able to climb up on our old white couch in the den and get her matted black dog hair everywhere. Finally, her back legs gave out and she began soiling herself. She always became matted on her back legs, and Dad and I would have to hold her down and cut the mats out. For such a smallish dog, she was hairier than most any dog I’ve ever seen.

My dad called me one morning and said that he had to take Tippy to the vet. She couldn’t walk and she couldn’t control her bowels anymore.

Other than a mouse and probably some carnival goldfish and other family pets (cats, litter after litter of feral kittens, turtles, and Chipper), Tippy was the first pet of mine that died, the first pet who slept in the same bed with me, who rolled on the floor with me, and who licked me uncontrollably and zoomed around the house with joy when I played with her. I’ll never forget that ugly mug. And all those bites. No wonder those friends never kept in touch.