Ritual Confessions

February 29, 2008

Jen’s visit

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:33 am

So, Jen arrived in Portland today at a little after one in the afternoon. I can’t believe she’s here and that she finally got to meet Charlotte. We all had a very nice afternoon and once Nick got home, we left the little girl in his care and went to dinner on Hawthorne.

In the days before she came, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to best convey the joy of Portland to her. And I have to say, this question had no easy answers. Portland has incredible culinary offerings, including the best Thai and the best sushi that I’ve ever had. But Jen is not a fan of Asian cuisine, or any ethnic cuisine, for that matter. Truth be told, she is all but indifferent to food. She would choose a decent diner over nearly any other place to eat.

She also doesn’t have much use for nature. The many mountains surrounding this city were visible in all their glory today. She said they were pretty but admitted that mountains have never done anything for her.

A lot of women enjoy shopping in unique and interesting little boutiques, which Portland has in abundance. But not Jen. She’s not interested in clothes or art or even feminine luxuries like bath products.

So what did we do in New York all those years? We had our writing dates, usually in diners, sometimes at a burrito joint. We went to bars. Very occasionally, we’d take a day trip to some beautiful natural setting, but she generally went along just to indulge me.

When people come to visit from far away, they always say, “It doesn’t matter what we do. All I care about is spending time with you.” I’ve always taken that statement with a grain of salt (or, occasionally, with a grain assault). But I actually believe it coming from her. So we probably won’t be going to the Japanese Gardens, or the Arboretum, or Mt. Tabor, or Saburo’s, or any of the dozen other places on my can’t-miss list. But we’ll catch up on each other’s lives and by the time she boards her plane for L.A., we’ll probably both know exactly what we need to do with our books-in-progress.


February 28, 2008

My husband’s response to last night’s post

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:04 am

Last night, Nick came in and read over my shoulder just as I was finishing up my blog. It was all I could do not to minimize the page on the screen. I didn’t want him to think that I had anything to hide from him. But it was a very uncomfortable few minutes. I realized I hadn’t ever told him that story. And I realized as well that I was afraid of what he would say. My husband can be very blunt.

When he reached the end, he was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, “You know, you have such a strong attachment to cats. You should try to figure out what that’s about.”

“A lot of people love cats. What is there to figure out?”

“But I mean, you’re so crazy about them. How did you get like this?”

“You ask that question as if you think it’s pathological.”

“I think it’s pathological that you would choose that one mistake to correct. Over any other thing in your whole life that you regret.”

“Yeah, well.”

“Anyway,” Nick said. “I doubt it happened the way you think.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him. “What do you think happened?”

“Well, think about this for a moment. You wrote that Boo was an outdoor/indoor cat. So probably your neighbors let her out while you were gone. Did it ever occur to you that maybe she disappeared before you came back from your trip? And that when you called them and asked them to let her out, they saw a perfect way to cover up the truth?”

“No, Nick, that never did occur to me. Not once in twenty-four years.” (And I did not consider it seriously last night, either. I am all but certain that isn’t what happened.)

“Of course not,” my husband answered, as if to himself. “That’s because you’re not Russian.”

February 27, 2008

My most ardent regret

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 4:33 am

David’s post made me think of my own animal-related grief. My resistance to writing this is so strong that I decided it was what I needed to do.

Boo was the cat of my life. We got her when I was very young: no more than two or three years old. Whenever my mother came in from work, I would ask her, “Did you bring a surprise?” This was because she occasionally brought home a small treat for my brother and me. Usually it was a Hershey bar. But this time it was a young, slim Siamese cat in a carrying case. She was washing her front paw.

This cat and I were inseparable for more than ten years. If you look at my childhood photo albums, Boo is in every other shot. I slept with her every night. She followed me almost everywhere I went. She would always appear when I was crying, as if to console me. I have loved all my cats, especially Mac (probably because he resembles and reminds me so much of her), but I don’t think I’ll ever have a bond of that depth again with any other animal.

When we went on trips, I would pine for her. Sometimes I irritated my mother by counting the days until I would get back home to her. She would say, “This is our vacation; don’t wish the days away.” 

When I turned fourteen, I fell in love for the first time. My boyfriend’s name was Mark. That summer, as always, my family went to the beach for a week, and instead of missing Boo, all I could think about was him. The next-door neighbors were boarding Boo, and when we got home, I gave them a quick call, told them we were back, and asked them to let the cat out so that she could come home. Then I immediately called Mark and probably spent the rest of the evening talking with him. I didn’t give Boo another thought. I certainly wasn’t worried about her. She was an outdoor/indoor cat who knew the neighborhood well and their house was less than twenty feet from ours.

She never came home. She was old and I believe she went away to die, as cats do. I can’t help believing she decided it was time to die because I hadn’t even come next door to get her, as I always had before.

I have done far worse things in my thirty-eight years, but nothing I regret as much as that. If I could go back and do only one thing in my life over again, I would go back and pick her up from the neighbors’ house instead of just calling in our arrival. Of all the mistakes I’ve made, and there are many I can’t consider without shuddering — relationship mistakes, career mistakes, a thousand things I should or shouldn’t have said or done — if I could fix only one of them, that is the one I would choose. Nothing else even comes close.

February 26, 2008

Two aspects of today

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:11 am

1. Yesterday morning, I got into my car so that I could go pick up some bagels for brunch and found that it wouldn’t start. Nick came out with jumper cables and fired it up, but he was worried that it would just die again sometime soon and that the battery had basically been spent. So he bought a new battery and installed it toward evening. This morning, the car started without incident but the radio would not turn on. Apparently this is a security feature. The panel flashed a request for our code, but we don’t know it. It was eerie to ride in the car with no radio; it never, ever happens under regular circumstances. It felt as if I were in a silent movie, or as if I were deaf.

 2. This afternoon at about 2:00, I turned in my first assignment for this agency. It wasn’t due until tomorrow morning, but I wanted to make a point of finishing early. As I sent it off, I knew it was good, which was a wonderful feeling. It hadn’t been entirely easy to write. I’d been asked to assume a certain tone that is quite foreign to me: light, positive, and upbeat, with copy broken up as much as possible into very short sections. On the other hand, the permission to write very informally was a welcome relief. I liked doing the research and conducting the interviews; actually composing the article was the hardest part for me. What eventually freed me was telling myself what I always tell my editing clients: to write a horrific first draft. I am sometimes tentative as a writer, but I am nearly always very assured as an editor. Once I had the rough text in place, I could pretend it was someone else’s and fix it without much effort. Anyway, they responded within a few hours and told me it was great, thanking me for sending it “so promptly and so well done.” I feel very happy about that.

February 25, 2008

Sweet weekend visit

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 7:16 am

My mother was here this weekend, from Friday evening through this morning. It was really great to have her here. She has invested so much time and energy in bonding with Charlotte and there is no doubt that it has been very effective. Even though many weeks go by between visits, Charlotte undeniably knows who she is and adores her. The forecast for these past few days had been dismal, but the weather defied all expectations and was beautiful. We went to a park just inside Vancouver’s city center, which has a fantastic playground; unlike many we’ve been to recently, it has a lot of equipment that Charlotte could use. Baby swings and shallow little slides and stationary “rides” just her size and (her favorite) a sandbox.

Then just across the street is a marvelous library. I’d been there earlier this week, because it was my week to bring library books to Charlotte’s Montessori classroom. (Other voluntary tasks that parents are strenuously encouraged to undertake from time to time are bringing in fresh flowers, providing a dozen hard-boiled brown eggs, and doing the classroom laundry. So far, I’ve contributed everything but the eggs.) The guidelines for the classroom library books discouraged stories that stray from real-life situations. Fantasy characters and talking animals were out, for instance. It was amazing how difficult it was to find books that stayed within these parameters. Anyway, this time I brought Charlotte and my mother, who played in the very lovely children’s section while I checked out books on digital nature photography (the subject of the feature article I need to turn in tomorrow).

After all this, we went to the community pool, which was another crowd-pleaser. All in all, we managed to pack quite a lot of activity into a day and a half. It’s especially nice to realize how I proud I felt of Vancouver. 

February 24, 2008

…and I barely knew my name (continued)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 8:16 am

It’s been a while, but it has been driven home to me before: the idea that you think you know who you are until you go somewhere very different and live there long enough to lose the mooring of your former shores.

Not long after college, I lived on two different Indian reservations in South Dakota. (Native American was the phrase my collegiate peers had used when speaking of this demographic, and yet during the year I spent living with the Lakota tribe, I never once heard anyone refer to him- or herself as a Native American. They called themselves Indians, and so that is the word I tend to use as well.) That was the last time I listened to country music on a daily basis, because there was literally nothing else on the airwaves.

Anyway, throughout high school and college I’d been pro-choice. It’s easy to be pro-choice in the northeast, especially in New York City, especially in an academic setting. I’d never questioned my conviction and my stance had never wavered. Then I went to South Dakota.

Everyone, everyone there was pro-life. All the Indians I knew voted for George H.W. Bush during that year’s election, solely for that reason. There was one moment during my time there that made me reel in confusion over this issue, and I’ll recount it here:

My housemate, Dean, was a born-again Christian. He’d coached a young girl from the reservation in the Special Olympics and I met her the afternoon she’d won the fifty-yard dash. I was sitting on our front steps when Dean brought her by: a beautiful child with long black hair and a coat flung over her shoulders like a cape. As I admired her gold medal and we exchanged small talk, I couldn’t stop wondering: what in the world is her disability? She was clearly in possession of a fine intelligence. Her face bore none of the trademark features of fetal alcohol syndrome. Standing there, she appeared regal and confident and sharply self-possessed. I couldn’t very well ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But I also couldn’t put the question out of my mind. It took a good fifteen minutes to realize that she had no arms.

Later that evening, Dean and I were talking over dinner.

“I was so impressed by Leslie,” I told him, referring to the girl. “She really seems amazing.”

“She is amazing,” he said hotly. “She’s brave and beautiful and awe-inspiring and just the sweetest kid there is, and you would have snuffed her out like a cockroach without a second thought.”

February 23, 2008

…and I barely knew my name

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 8:18 am

Last night as I was writing the anecdote involving the soda machine, it occurred to me suddenly that I would never enact a scene like that out here on the west coast. That is, I never did anything like that in Portland, nor can I imagine doing anything like that in Vancouver: a public display of rage. In New York City, it happened with some regularity. I remember furiously kicking subway doors that had closed a split second too late for me to make the train. I remember shrieking “Fuck!” in the middle of the street over some frustation, like my cell phone dying at an inopportune moment. These things were done as a matter of course there; they were permissible. It’s not that everybody succumbed to their own fury all the time, but whenever someone did, no one was particularly taken aback or alarmed. The stress level there was so high, the conditions so trying, the humanity so overwhelmed by itself… people knew that now and then, something had to give, and this was accepted.

Out here, on the other hand, no one behaves that way. It would be considered highly indecorous — incredibly bad form. Even more interesting to me, though, is that since moving west, I can’t recall having even the temptation to melt down in a public space. Do Portland and Vancouver lack for sources of extreme provocation? Have I mellowed in my old age, or maybe within the context of motherhood? Maybe. But I think my relative equanimity here has more to do with the culture, which has affected me more than I’d realized.

Identity is a complex equation even for those of us without multiple personalities. As I consider my relative happiness out here in the sticks, as I hear myself singing along with every country song on the radio, as I watch myself shopping at Walmart or firing a gun at the local shooting range, there are times when I’m all but unrecognizable to myself.

[To be continued]

February 22, 2008

Okay, the soda machine anecdote

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 7:23 am

Well, way back when, during our engagement, my one real issue with Nick was that he would often answer a question one way, then flagrantly reverse himself, sometimes in the very next breath, without appearing to notice or care that he was being completely inconsistent. I wasn’t the only one who was bothered by this; it drove George insane as well.

On this occasion, Nick and I had just entered the 92nd Street Y for some evening event. We were in the midst of a hot discussion about some state of affairs at work. Both Nick and I had wildly fluctuating feelings about the company, but we were rarely on the same wavelength at the same moment. If I was enraged at George, Nick was defending him and urging tolerance. If I was feeling particularly grateful to have the man for a boss, Nick was fantasizing about splitting open his skull. At this moment, Nick was angry at him. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I do remember him saying, “Well, let him fire me then. I’m not quitting.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “Are you hoping for unemployment compensation?”


“Why won’t you quit?”

“I will quit. I don’t need this bullshit anymore.”

“Nick! You keep doing this. You say one thing with absolute conviction, then when I try to clarify your statement, you say the opposite. What the hell is that about? You literally do it every single day.”

We had moved to a little corridor off the lobby, where there were vending machines. As usual, I needed my fix, my wretched addiction and lifeblood: a bottle of Diet Coke. I slid a dollar into the vending machine and continued my rant.

“So why does this keep happening, Nick? I just want to understand it, because it’s making me crazy. Is it a language barrier? Is it that you’re not understanding my question, but pretending you do? Is it that you’re just telling me what you think I want to hear, then changing your answer because I didn’t like the original one? Is it that you’re not really paying attention? Is it that you’re not smart enough to keep your own information straight? Goddamn it!” And here I started pounding the panel for Diet Coke, because the machine had taken my dollar but wasn’t yielding my soda. “What the hell is wrong with this infernal fucking thing? It took my dollar and it’s not giving me my goddamn Diet Coke!”

Nick was leaning against the wall and after I’d kicked the machine for good measure, he looked down at me with just the hint of an indulgent smile. When he spoke it was clear that he wasn’t wounded by anything I’d just said, wasn’t angry, wasn’t insulted or provoked or even really affected one way or another. His expression was merely calm, and kindly, and faintly amused, and perhaps a little sorry for me. As in, the poor creature, look at what a frenzy she works herself into, and for what?

He nodded at a sticker affixed to the machine, on which the price for a bottle of soda was printed quite plainly. “Diet Coke is a dollar fifty,” he said.

February 21, 2008

Last night’s story, continued

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 5:48 am

A few weeks into this little campaign, a guy named George responded to my Craigslist post with a single, unpunctuated line:

Ok I am interested in your proof reading skill

There was no intended irony in his response. Beneath this sentence was his name, title, and phone number. I called and offered to proofread an initial document free of charge so that he could judge my work for himself. He e-mailed a client testimony; I edited it and sent it back. Over the phone, he told me I was hired; that we’d continue to send documents back and forth via e-mail; that he would pay me through PayPal.

“I really look forward to working with you,” I told him. “In the meantime, I’d love to drop by your office and meet you briefly. My experience has been that an in-person meeting helps me to better understand and impart the client’s message.”

The truth is, my experience has been that when I meet the client, I get more freelance work. There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting when trying to build rapport. When I sit down with clients, look them in the eye, listen to them with obvious absorption, and project an attitude of careful attention and serious regard, they will usually feel more heard and understood and reassured than is ever possible after an electronic or telephone conversation. But George did not seem to need or want this.

“That’s not necessary,” he told me. “We can just e-mail back and forth.”

“I know it’s not strictly necessary,” I said, as lightly as I could. “It’s just something I like to do. It helps me with the process.”

“Well, don’t bother this time. I’m sure you’ll do a great job.”

“It won’t be a bother. I would really prefer it.”

“It’s just, we’re really busy over here.”

“I understand. And I’ll keep it very brief.”

We went back and forth several more times before he finally snapped, “All right! All right. If you think you absolutely have to come in, then fine, knock yourself out. I don’t see the point, though.”

“Great!” I said brightly. “What’s your address?”

After hanging up, I put on stockings, heels, and a little skirt suit. I then went out into a freezing blizzard and began making my way from the lower east side to midtown west. This involved a bus and then a subway, as well as several icy blocks on foot at either end. The address he’d given me was in a filthy, depressing part of town near the Port Authority, where junkies and other marginal types made up a disproportionate part of the street population. The building was run down; the walls in the lobby were crumbling. George’s company was on the fourth floor, and even before I reached his threshold, I could see that his space was little more than a hole in the wall.

I’m 34 years old, I thought. And I’m fighting tooth and nail just to get into this guy’s pathetic office. Suiting up and crossing town in a snowstorm, taking all this time and trouble, just for the sake of possibly getting a few more hours of freelance work. Stepping through the doorway, I felt weak with humiliation and defeat.

“Suite 400” might have been named for its square footage. It had industrial carpeting and a few crude cubicles. The walls probably hadn’t been painted in years. A row of grimy windows provided a view of the building’s airshaft.

In this small, dismal room were four men. One was an administrative assistant. One was the computer geek who would build the company’s proprietary server. One was George, who ended up teaching me everything I now know about business development, who helped me make more money in the subsequent two years than I’d ever seen before, and probably more than I’ll ever see again. And though I didn’t have even an inkling of it then, one of them was my husband.

February 20, 2008

Lame, tired preamble to an unfinished story (it doesn’t get much better than this)

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 7:11 am

Charlotte was feverish last night and slept very fitfully. For that matter, I don’t even know if slept  is the right word; she was up every hour or two, and therefore I was as well. All day I felt trashed beyond description. After dropping her off at school, I was tempted to come back home and take a nap, but the dilemma was as it’s been since she was born: do I spend my precious free time on sleep, or do I try to get something done? I ended up making a lot of headway on the house (that is, I’m still wading through unpacking and organizing) and sending the agency a preliminary outline of the feature article, which they liked a lot. I’m very anxious to do an impeccable job with this first assignment so that they’ll keep giving me work. As David mentioned in his own blog this evening, it’s a very tough job market right now. Part of what steadies me is that there have been so many times in the past when I’ve felt panic over my prospects for a livelihood. And my experience has been that the darkest hour is usually just before dawn. Which brings me to a good story, actually:

About four years ago, I was as frightened as I’ve ever been about how I was going to get by. My last job had just ended because I’d broken off my relationship with the boss (different story; another time). I’d been working as an administrative assistant for many years to supplement my sporadic writing income; now I decided to focus on building a freelance business. To this end, I posted in the “services” section of New York City’s Craigslist, advertising myself as a writer, editor and proofreader. The first several hits were not encouraging. Several people contacted me to request a meeting, and when I sat down with them over coffee, I was told that they had an incredible life story, the makings of a surefire bestseller, which I should write on spec for a percentage of its future profits.

[TO BE CONTINUED — only because my eyes are falling shut. Blame Charlotte!*]

*my own private Canada 

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