What Not to Hear When You’re Fearing Death

Two weeks ago I lost a friend from grade school. She had an absolutely awful death, no peace at all. She fought it like the Taliban would fight, oh, I don’t know, lard-fried chicken chomped by Israelis waving American flags. I really have no clue. I wasn’t there, I spoke to her on the phone a few hours before she died. They’d just applied a morphine patch. She’d been taken to a place on Long Island called “The Hospice Inn,” ostensibly to lessen her calcium and something else which were at toxic levels. She’d been sick for six years, raised a daughter (now nine) in an amazing and hands-on fashion, loved her husband, went to work every single freaking day. More radiation and chemo and transfusions than I could certainly count. She did not want to die, this was no Zen retreat, she fought like the pit bulls my dog-rescue friends swear don’t exist. She wanted to still exist. She did not want to go. When I called her, the morphine patch was new on her skin. We had a conversation and she wanted me to hear what she had to say. I couldn’t really understand her. I spoke, spritely and perky and repeating my name and my friends’ names, Honey it’s Anne Brenda Kerrie Lauren and I love you so much, we love you, just rest, honey it’s Anne Kerrie Lauren Brenda and she listened to me. Then she spoke, and I couldn’t understand her. She liked to talk. She was quite a talker, in the good sense of that expression. She kept on talking, she had things she wanted to say. Then she paused, I said more Anne Lauren Brenda Kerrie, she listened, she resumed talking. Then her sister took the phone. Her sister, high school star of musical theater, whose Bonne Bell lipsmackers my friend and I pillaged in sixth grade. Thanks to Facebook the past — the lipsmackers, the Waltons lunchbox my friend carried, the dust in the ruffles of her sister’s canopy bed — slams back to me. The past is easy to smell, it juts into you like an elbow on the subway I don’t ride anymore because I live in California. My friend did not want to die. This was no serene scene, no midwifery of death as people I know working in hospice have declaimed. It was total and complete and unmitigated fucking hell and I am sick that she is dead.

Get your WOOFER

I’ve known Emile Menasche for a really long time. Like, since we were 16. We attended poetry camp together at Bard College. Three straight weeks of Ziggy Stardust, Andre Breton and a most improbable Aurora Borealis.

It was my first time experiencing, up close and personal, a  brilliant guitarist do his thing. The grown-up Emile is even better, and he’s a gifted journalist too. He turned me on to WOOFER, a neat, intriguing and interactive ePub launched by In Tune Partners.

WOOFER‘s content includes the first installment of Adventures in Tremolo, my novella in progress. It features a few of my favorite things (guitarists! air disasters! NYC in the 80s!). Please visit WOOFER, buy the first issue, and enjoy.

About WOOFER (from www.woofermag.com):

Woofer, a new kind of music magazine, has launched for iPads and computer browsers. If you’re a musician, a music-industry type, or just a superfan, you’re going to love our mix of artist coverage, music criticism, gear reviews, how-to columns, animation, fiction, and more. Our editorial is infused with music clips, videos, and other interactive elements. Please go to www.woofermag.com to find out how to download your copy of the premiere issue.  

Excerpt: AH HERE WE GO

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays.

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust—

Ruin is formal—Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow—
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping—is Crash’s law.

Emily Dickinson

**********

The last time they sat still on the earth.

Ground crew jumpsuited, swathed in ear protection–muffs that I now know are called Mouse Ears, and why did they choose Cabo and not Disney why oh why oh why — and a glaze of forehead sweat. The last level ground they trod on. They shared the tarmac with jumpsuits orange blue and white, name tags sewn on (Pablo, Javier) and the alpine logo of Snowqualmie Air.  The jumpsuits dragged away the staircase they shuffled up step by step, a long line of boarding. Seventy-two pairs of feet, a total of 148 individual metatarsals. A slow conga up the stairs. Sunburned, in some heads of hair a slight crunch of sand. The carry-ons, the magazines, the breakable souvenirs, the children hoisted or held by the hand. The jumpsuits felt hunger, their meal break delayed. These men were not union, which is how this happened, the loss of lunch. They, on the other hand, boarded well fed, bloated with the salt of a fajita-and-margarita diet. Camarones, sweet rolls from the hotel panaderia.  Vacation, vacances, vacaciones. Waistbands biting into bellies, gym time anticipated. Courtesy and patience as their shoes touched each riser. More a ladder than a stairway.

Don’t you dare say, To Heaven.

The hatch on the cabin door locked with suction.

The pilots’ sunglasses, polarized, buffed with lens cleaner and a square chamois with pinked edges.

Settling, arranging, clicking.

We have all boarded planes.  We leave on jet planes and always think we know precisely when we’ll be back again.  We worry about turbulence, wind shear, box cutters, pulmonary emboli, delays, jihad.  We strap in and buckle up.  We know the bustle, the sounds, hint of coffee, metal rumbles in the galley.

They were mine; how did this happen, the loss of children?

© Anne Isaaks, 2011. All rights reserved.

Two novels in progress

When I’m busy with projects, I tend not to post here. The blog is a quick and dirty way to get that good old writing feeling. When I’m stuck on a project (meaning a novel), I don’t write. So the blog is helpful in that instance. When you’re a writer, and then you don’t write, and you know you should write, and you need to write, but you’re not doing it, the writing that drives you nuts and feeds you nonetheless, your homeostasis is totally off and you’re oh so frustrated because you don’t write.  The very smart Susannah Levine, with whom I yakked not long ago, described it perfectly: “literary mastitis.”

It feels so ick.  A malaise with aches and an inflammatory, gout-like aspect. Substantial and pernicious. Reaches into your interior in an expansive, stretching way, like red wine has legs. And that is where the blog comes in.

But I’ve been so busy with my two novels in progress —  one in particular — and an additional project — a serialized novella commissioned by In Tune Monthly for an e-Pub they’re launching soon (stay tuned!) — that the blog’s been moribund.

Which is fine.  Since I’d rather write. As in write write.

One of the novels I’m working on is called Ah Here We Go. It is based on the Alaska Airlines disaster in 2000. If a plane crash is everyone’s worst nightmare, then this specific event is every single parent’s worst nightmare.

If you know me in real life, you likely know that if I have a fetish, it would be aviation.

I am obsessed with the whole schmear-y mess of it: from rivets to wind shear, the quotidian and the catastrophic, the equipment and the physics. I have always wanted to write about the “gleaming silver death machine” — thank you, Don DeLillo.  And from that same eavesdropped cockpit transmission recounted for Jack Gladney and Tweedy Browner at the Iron City airport: “I love you Lance.” That moment, too. When someone thinks it’s the end, and it’s not.

Unlike the plane and Lance-loving pilot in White Noise, Alaska Airlines 261 was real. The pilots flew valiantly and did everything they could despite their airline’s negligent beyond-woeful non maintenance of a critical huge screw. They tried to make it work. They couldn’t. This was not an instantaneous evaporation or explosion. The passengers sat there, longer than for an episode of 30 Rock, feeling the attempts to keep them level and alive. An amazing single mom lost two children on that plane. They were with her ex-husband, their father, and new stepmother, half-brother and stepbrother. She was en route home from her own vacation. She had no clue the plane carrying her children crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu. She had to be intercepted by family and friends. She lost everything yet she is still here.  How, I do not know.

The captain’s last words were “Ah, here we go.”

Liquid Amber Dosa

Did I like tuna melts, the interior landscaper asked.

This, during a strained discussion of basil and lavender, herbs good for a gangrene-thumb like myself. At a too-small table I was struggling: for a topic, exit, allergic reaction, anything to get my butt out of there. I’d just asked about tisanes, which leaves were possible, which poison. He had no clue. Lemon verbena, I was about to say.

Then: tuna melts.  Do you like them?

Not really, I said. Greasy griddled bread, mashed fish, cheese, mayo? Hello? No. Even if I did like them, would I admit to such a thing? Commit my outsized teeth to a mess only a double Sonicare session could cure?

He had a great one, he said, at the USS Midway snack bar. The best. At the aircraft carrier museum.

Good to know.

It is all interesting on some topical level. To someone, maybe. Are you planning a trip to San Diego? Do you like tuna melts? You can bask in the birthplace of Naval aviation, check out the catapult and ready rooms, site of myriad cruises and risky night cat traps, stinky zoom suits, cinnamon rolls and Cold War and valor and boredom and porn. Imagine, you can climb into a simulator all patriot like, and then: Get on line for a tuna melt.

It is easier to write about a dud date than the hope for someone else.

A train in the distance made tangible. Fancy that. I really can’t.

There are epistolary things, emails slightly too meaty to delete, accounts of long-ago midnight falafel and the remodeling of beach shacks. Cities and memories of different East Coast childhoods. I’m writing from here now. This is what I did, in this school and that, Fessenden, Exeter, Princeton, Stanford. I live near the water and I hear the train and there is hope in that sound, why is that? Neurobiology; you romanticize it but I envy what you do, how you can describe. There is such a thing as wasted science, when papers go unwritten. The science is lost.

An introduction to dosa, a lentil-and-rice fermented crepe from South India. Protein rich and golden, cone shaped, big, like a dunce cap. Dosa, hot and stiff with ghee. Lined with masala. There’s one good place in this town to get it.

There are no simple good times when you date at our age.

At table, as the dosa flakes absorb chutney and the raita flows, a survey of red flags. A mutual obstacle course. Common losses early in life, so similar as to be scary.

Say no more. I know just what you mean.

On his iPhone, pictures of trees, a Buddha equidistant to guitar on the beach shack floor, a big untamed garden. I recommended sage; I said it would go viral.

Check it out. In my yard, liquid amber trees! The realtor didn’t get just how amazing that is. The name.

Yes, I said, liquid amber, the name and the trees. They are beautiful.

They really were.

Of Missoni Bags, Floods, and Thanks

Casa Asbestos

Three weeks ago the kids and I came home to a massive flood. An upstairs hot water knob ejected from its fixture. It’s amazing how much water, and at what intense pressure, can emit from a minute hole.

Four hours drenched a lot.

So we entered a Bacchanal of steam and weepy ceilings and pounding sounds — if a fountain was Pachelbel, this was Meat Beat Manifesto — and saturated carpet. Into the subfloor the water went, lifting tile and pine planks like psoriasis scales. Down the staircase, between risers, directly onto the bigass iMac: a commercial for a Cupertino-based risk management firm if I ever saw one.

We’re fine.  Pets alive and crazy per usual. Laptop intact in its overpriced sexy casing. Books dry, save for my Paris Review collection, which Plimpton bestowed upon me and other NYU writing brats in 1989.

Every wall, floor, ceiling, sodden. Which required lancing, which yielded asbestos, necessitating hazmat-style debridement.

Right now my condo’s full of studs. I’m not talking smart dudes in Levis, flight suits, or Church’s English shoes. There’s an armature of plywood basically everywhere. All our possessions were inventoried, boxed, and sent to a fireproof, climate-controlled warehouse in Otay Mesa.

This means a complete remodel of all surfaces and a new bed for me (tabula rasa time, yippee) and a new computer and virgin eyeliner to replace my waterlogged cosmetics.

So it rained inside and the ceiling almost fell and it was an adventure.

One of the best teaching experiences ever, in a parenting context.

The kids saw that you can have a mess, a surprise disaster, and bop through it.

That these things are far from the end of the world.

That good friends show up, and are present, even get scalded. That they are there.

That we can’t thank Papa enough for being a hawk instead of a hippie like Grandma, and for his officer sojourn which led to our USAA membership.

That we embrace portability: photographs, laptop, Missoni bag in protective sack, bowls I painted when the twins were just hCG-spinning cellular dust devils, a messy Oxford Shakespeare.

That slogging across a swampy living room hoisting said Missoni bag, jeans wet with brown water, makes you glad the closet door was shut.

That water is better than fire, and first-rate insurance trumps both.

Dear match.com:

It is with exhaustion and annoyance that I submit this letter of cancellation, effective yesterday, July 4, 2010.

From Halloween to Independence Day, my membership proved to be a Holiday on Haldol. For more than one of the fellows I’ve met via your site, it was literally a Holiday on Ice. As in meth. Or a Holiday on Beer, quaffed in the shower, pre shave and shampoo.

Ah, the match.com pharmacopeia. Recreational, therapeutic, big fat dealbreakers all: “I injected methamphetamine for ten years.” “Cocaine was my life.” “I am a marijuana addict.” “The truth is that I’m bipolar, and I take Lithium, among other things.” “Yeah, Xanax.” “You never tried E? You’re shitting me!”

I’m not talking properly-prescribed Prozac or Concerta or even an ambient, inadvertent whiff of something Snoop Dogg at a music festival.  It’s the big guns and the huge problems.  The things people self medicate over. And their methods of self medication.

And the alcohol. Don’t get me started on the alcohol.

Over half of the guys who contacted me on match over a nine-month period had one trait in common, besides gonads.  They were addicts.  Some were in recovery. Not all. A few were in cold turkey mode at the time of the first — and only — date.

I went through a period of meeting addict after addict.  I identified them pretty quickly.  That’s the redeeming part of the whole experience:  match as proving ground for everything you’ve worked on in therapy. For me, it was gold, a virtual Hazelden of red flag identification practice. The smell of alcohol on a guy at 11 AM.  A patchwork of drained glasses on a table, alongside my half-full Cosmo.

In my dating past, pre-match and early in my match tenure, I’d overlook a lot. Rude to waiters? Refuse to throw out your own cup in a cafe? Weirdly rigid (“No bitters for my bitters-and-water? Forget it!”)? Odd controlling crap (“Why are you here first? You said you’d call me when you were on your way!”)? Oh, if you were New York Jewish, or went to Stanford, or knew DeLillo’s work almost as well I did, I’d see your red flags, sure. But I’d blur my eyes.  For a smart girl, not the brightest thing to do.  Not a good practice.

Each addict I met on match honed my flag patrol skills. At Christmastime there was a former tweaker/local politico, who, a propos of not very much, got proctological on me in a parking structure. “I think you need to be dominated.” He’d come on hot and heavy prior to his attempted (and failed) digital exam. Got very intense even before meeting me. Hyperfocused, obsessive, begging to meet before the lunch date.

This lack of modulation, I have learned, is something addicts do. Even the clean and sober. They’re all Id. Zero filter. Maybe it’s the personality disorder, the Axis-II, in them. “Bad protoplasm,” my psychiatrist friend Noreen would say. If I’d heard Political Tweaker talk that way today, I’d never have met him. For a pecan-gorgonzola salad or anything else.

Now, match.com, I see the question forming on your cold sore-strewn lips: If the Wannabe Buttmaster didn’t drive you to resign from me, what in freaking hell did?

An addict, charismatic, less than two years sober. His first email to me? “I love you.” Okay, impulsive and inappropriate and weird, and would have netted instant deletion had his profile not offered other attractions. His second email included this gem:

“hmmm, sitting with you in a cafe, smelling your loins on my mustache from a long night of yodeling in the canyon.”

Time of his first message to me on match website: 11:25 AM.  Time of “I Love You”: 12:58 PM.  Time of mention of my “loins”: 3:38 PM.

Yodeling? I’m not going there.

As Joan Didion and Robin Morgan and Robert Graves all wrote, “Goodbye to all that.”

Yep.

Bye.

Texas Street

Urban San Diego has hills.  Pockets of ersatz San Fran.  Steep grades.  You wouldn’t think it, but it’s true.

You get it near the airport.  There’s a part of Laurel Street where the ground vanishes like the edge of a pre-narcoterrorist Baja hotel pool. Somehow there’s pavement under your tires, but you don’t see how.  You certainly don’t feel it. Ahead of you, way below, the Lindbergh Field tarmac unfolds.  You’re flying, en route to flying.  Or to picking up someone currently approaching the dreaded too-tall FAA-disapproved parking structure.

Bachman Drive, near UCSD Medical Center, is another big hill.  Of course I called it Bachman-Turner-Overdrive when I took it regularly. It’s a way to avoid the freeway.

And Texas Street. Texas Street is a biggie.  Steep and long, from Mission Valley to North Park, curved like nightmare scoliosis.

In my NYC salad days, I somehow stopped driving cars. No alternate-side-of-the-street parking for me.  We didn’t own a car.  We owned bikes and tokens.  So when we moved to Daygo, I had to drive.

We borrowed a Chevy Citation from M.’s dear grandfather (truly of blessed memory in my book).  Pulling the emergency brake meant tugging a bent wire hanger.  In hindsight, it was ideal.  I was a rusty driver; it was a rusty car, as rusted as old cars get in SoCal.  Many sad conversations and fights and anxiety attacks (mine) occurred in that car. I was scared to drive. Freeway driving seemed insane. To willingly enter a mosh pit of death, encased in discolored steel, with zero idea of what I was doing?  I was neurotic, sure.  But suicidal?  And homicidal?

I got behind the wheel and did my best.  I lacked mass transit and the ability to merge, accelerate and change lines like a crank-fueled contra dance. So I learned surface streets.  Hence Bachman-Turner-Overdrive. And Texas Street.

After a few months of spray-firing my resume at San Diego’s sole publishing house, the former Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (AKA HBJ), I took a job at a Jewish non-profit situated in Mission Valley. To get there meant a white-knuckled drive down and up Texas Street.

It was one lane downhill, two lanes up.  In the queue of cars, waiting for my turn to nose the Citation over the edge, I felt terror.  Like a snow bunny atop a black diamond trail, nowhere to go but down. Twice a day, terrified. Remembering this hurts.  I can’t believe I was so scared.

Making my way down, scuffed Clergerie riding the brake, each metallic groan and squeak and shake of the car splashed me in adrenaline.

Of course it wasn’t about the car.

Eventually I employed my own form of immersion therapy.  Personal pride, dignity, necessity, and the fact that I couldn’t take the panic led me to a driving school.  Two lessons, and bam.  I  love to drive.  I do it fairly well.  Too fearlessly, some say.

To get home last night, I drove down Texas Street.  It’s a quick way to reach the 8. I pointed my car down, swish-swish-swish, popped a mint in my mouth, made the light, and vroomed home, happy.

It’s a thoroughfare. Seventeen years ago, to me, it symbolized everything painful and wrong.

I moved here on Bastille Day in 1993, with someone I adored — how could I not? pouty, razor smart, wondrous with words and fresh ginger, the heady bouquet of secret tattoo and black-leather-strapped holy phylacteries, Church’s English Shoes and the best button-front 501s this side of Deadwood — and despised. How could I not?  He instigated that whither-thou-goest scenario so long ago.  I did not want to leave New York.

Nor did I want to leave him.  I was a Zabars-shopping wife.  I knew what I knew: Penn Station, Shakespeare and Company, mousse truffee for my carnivore guests, seeded semolina bread, diner coffee in the Greek cardboard cup, Barneys in Chelsea, clomping up and down subway steps in my black tights and Robert Clergeries with a square toe box.  And I really did love M. In truth I was too young to be anyone’s wife.  My husband wanted to leave, so I left with him.  And then made his life miserable.  He wasn’t a mensch either.  The whole thing tanked, spectacularly.  Then I was his wife no longer.

Today we text each other in traffic on highways 3000 miles apart.

It takes time and redemption and forgiveness, as I told a neat new friend last night. Sad memories and happy memories can co-exist. One doesn’t negate or dominate the other.  It’s like balsamic vinegar and olive oil served together, yin-yang style, in the same dish.  A lovely presentation. You dunk your bread and you get both.

Boogie Days

I have always liked pornography.  Not in an empirical, knapsack-under-the-bed (or in the laptop), proud-of-my-treasure-trove way.   I don’t collect it.  I don’t watch it.  I don’t study it.  I rarely think about it. But I’m glad it’s there.

I have a neat day job.  I work for a pornographer.  Though my boss says he’s a pornographer, he isn’t, really.  We don’t make the stuff.  We distribute it.  We are a conduit.  We literally fulfill the needs of people who like to own porn.  As my boss often says, “It’s shoes. Just like shoes.”

Since people always ask this question:  No, we sell nothing related to child pornography.  No snuff either.

Lest you think I’m a fluffer or script girl, forget it.  In a real way, my very smart and entrepreneurial boss is right on with the shoe analogy.  We have more in common with Zappos than not.  There is a website, a very expansive and easy-to-navigate porn superstore.  There is product to choose from — a ton of it. Thousands of shoes, thousands of DVDs.  Zappos sells socks and Spanx; we sell Jack Rabbits and strokers.  You search, you shop, you buy.  We order the product, we take your money, we send you your order in a discreet package.  We ship hundreds and hundreds a titles a week, to people all over the map.  To the Ivy League, to trailers in the Bible Belt.  Married couples, singles of both genders, platoons in Afghanistan.

I really like this job.  It entails marketing and accounting and customer service and helping a business succeed.  I like these things.  As someone who learned the initials ACLU with my ABCs — thank you, my progressive family — I take pleasure in putting into practice some dearly held ideals.  Yeah, I don’t like all the shit. FAR from it.  But I believe in free will.  Someone wanted to make it, someone got paid to make it, someone likes this stuff, someone has the freedom to buy it.  I may not understand it.  It may give me the willies for a variety of (mostly aesthetic) reasons.  Is it for me to judge?

No.

The Cavalcade of Unavailables

Have you ever reached a point at which you’re sick of crap?  The moment when so many annoyances brim over, saturate the tablecloth, stain the wood beneath, and you just can’t haul ass to the dry cleaner any more?

Epiphany, light bulb, suspended state of perfect clarity, thunderclap of Jesus Christ, I have had it, I am no longer doing this.

As I wrote to my college roommate this week: “To quote Donna Summer, enough is enough.”

Everyone should have a college roommate like mine.  A quarter century later, we are still roommates.  Transcontinental roommates.

I recently posted a comment on the Facebook status update of a lovely youngster, friend of  another young friend.  She’d posted that at 24, she had so much to learn.  Wait until you’re 44, I said.  It does get so much better in myriad ways. The big however is that you pay a price for the improvement of life and love: a quickening of time.  Everything goes faster and faster.  One moment my roomie and I are buying Pepperidge Farm Ginger Man cookies and eating them at Tappan Square, we are grumpy and more than a tad self destructive; the next we are in grad school, then getting married and divorced and procreating and managing all sorts of issues we never anticipated as 18-year-old students of Derrida and recipients of Lancome care packages.

As I told my roommate, I am writing some rules.  What I will and will not tolerate. I advised her to read it.  We are quite similar.  The 24-year-old girl should consider it too.

#1:  Keep narcissists where they belong, in Marie Claire self-help articles and their own therapists’ offices.

#2:  If you can’t yak with someone in his or her kitchen, you and they do not share a relationship.

#3:  Band-aids are for paper cuts.  Do not be a human Band-aid for someone else, no matter how you love them.

You get older and things get easier.  I recognize the perpetuation of garbage much quicker.

So:  Shalom and godspeed, my Cavalcade of Unavailables.  I love you, but I’ve had enough.