Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why I Write

At age seven, I began my first novel. I would like to say that I was a childhood prodigy, but that wasn’t the case. I sat at the typewriter (back then computers were only for video games), and composed one sentence. The desire was there, but the know-how needed work. I also needed some support, some acknowledgment of my burgeoning genius. But I was supposed to be respectable, to become a doctor, a lawyer, a business person.  I was the last of five children and sometimes hidden amidst the hustle and bustle in our crowded household. So I hunkered down and studied. It paid off. I was admitted to Harvard, where I studied anthropology, then Oxford, where I also studied anthropology.

That’s when I started my second novel. With the help of a computer, I managed to write 20 pages. Occasionally I wrote short stories. I started a journal, which I kept for years and which has morphed into this blog. Then I succumbed to whatever pressure you might want to call it and went to medical school. Amazingly, I graduated despite attempts by the faculty to throw me out. My attention, as it always had been, lay elsewhere. I was reading voraciously subjects not remotely related to medicine: history, memoir, and fiction. I wrapped my hands around Eggers and imagined him a kindred soul. I plowed through Dostoyevsky. I showed up to rounds with blood shot eyes from reading late into the night.

The faculty had suspicions about me. I didn’t fit in. I attended writing workshops at night when I should have been studying anatomy. I managed to convince the faculty to release me for one month so that I could attend the Prague Creative Writing Workshop. I got ambitious and entered a creative writing competition for medical students. I won. Finally some reassurance that I wasn’t alone. Then residency hit, a downward spiral. I managed to get through two years, but I still couldn’t change my nature. It was now or never. I quit. I am going to become a writer, I said. I can no longer deny my inner muse, was my explanation. I was on my own. My family didn’t understand, my friends from medical school withdrew in fear that my quitting might taint them. I found other friends, artsy fartsy ones. I started to feel more comfortable with myself. I got a few things published. It was on the internet, but I didn’t care. It felt like my name was up in lights. I worked a low paying job with no respect. I was putting in my time, paying my dues. But now I’m fed up. I can do better than this, I think.  It’s time to start another novel. It's time to get down to work.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rainy Day and H&H

Yesterday the rain continued uninterrupted from morning to night.  I went to the Upper West Side for no real reason other than it was on the way to a reading at the Mercantile Library.  I exited at W82nd St., and tried to think the trees into being picturesque.  The neighborhood looked black and white under the drizzle.  My imagination failed me.  The weather was so gloomy that most people rushed by in a cloud of grumpiness.  To cheer myself up, I bought an Everything bagel at H &H.  Freshly made, it was so hot that I could barely eat it.  Walking around was useless in all the damp, so I headed down into the subway. Even in the relative warmth of the subway, the steam from the bagel rose in lazy spirals.  As I waited for the train to arrive, I practiced honing my character discernment skills.  Narcissist, I thought of the one talking such a fast mean streak that all her friend could do was nod silently.  Moth, I thought of the friend, doomed to be burned by the narcissist. Already the moth's chin sank into her chest, her shoulders slumped, and her anxious smile revealed anger over having her needs ignored by her friend's self absorption.  Farther down the platform a thin man spread himself across two seats, oblivious to the crowd around him.  He fiddled importantly with his blackberry.  Male narcissist, I thought (there seem to be a disproportionate number on the UWS).  Leaning on one of the subway pillars, a woman stood aloofly surveying the scene.  Her eyes were gentle, yet she did not smile.  Her face bore a not unkind hardness, a wise hesitancy to trust.  Former moth, I thought, hardened but not broken by learning how to fend off the narcissist's slights.  I felt a kinship to that woman.  She looked like the type of person who would enjoy a piping hot H&H Everything bagel on a miserable day.

Friday, February 12, 2010

McDonald's and Sweaters

When I want a break from office politics I have lunch at the McDonald's on W171st & Broadway.  I like to people watch there, and on the way I can do some shopping.  All kinds of things are sold off tables on the streets of Washington Heights (Lancome moisturizer, lipstick, gloves, books, shoes, you name it).   Today I stopped by the $2 sweater guy.  He sometimes shows up on the corner of W170th and Broadway selling fresh from the factory (still in the cellophane!) sweaters for two dollars.  Since you can't open the packages, it can be a hit or miss affair.  But you can't beat the price, the guy is always friendly, and once I hit the jackpot with a green cashmere blend cardigan.  That was when a woman in my office berated me, not because I'd taken a lunch break but because she assumed the sweaters were stolen.  My take is this: if the guy is selling sweaters for $2 on the street (especially if he's standing in partially melted snow drifts like he was today) he probably needs the money.  There's stronger stuff that he could be selling on the street, and I'd rather give my business to him than to companies who over charge for sweaters made in the sweatshops of the Developing World.  So, with my $2 sweaters in hand, I walked into a music-less McDonald's.  Usually there's bachata playing at the walk-up window (in Manhattan the McDonald's are better for your health-- you don't drive up, you walk up), and soul playing inside.  Today conversations compensated for the music. I sat in a high traffic area, watching and listening (in this McDonald's you're more likely to hear Spanish than English).  A little boy scurried back and forth to the serve-yourself soda fountain.  His eyes lit up with a devious gleam over breaking the rules (you're only supposed to fill up once, but everyone looks the other way here).  Gradually I became aware of the conversation behind me.  A man boasted to a woman how he had been paid $4 an hour to do apartment repairs.  "Off the books," he said, "But sometimes the owners would give me big tips to make up for it.  Once I got $1500 at Christmas.  The boss got nada."  But the boss must have found out, because he started sending the man to different buildings where the tips dried up.  He was back to $4 an hour.  Now, his voice darkened, he had nothing, not even $4 an hour.  That's when the sound system blasted into action with, "She gives me love, love, love, love, crazy love!"  That drew my attention to the red heart-shaped balloons decorating the cash registers and the Valentine's streamers hanging from the ceiling.  Suddenly the place felt like a party.  I half expected Cookie Monster to appear with a basket of free Valentine's Day chocolates.  But there ain't no free lunch in life, and that didn't happen.  After I finished my Big Mac, I walked out the door and  past the walk-up window.  It was playing bachata again and everything was back to normal.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ms. Chatty

On the way to work this morning I was shocked awake by Ms. Chatty. Occasionally this calamity happens on Monday mornings. Ms. Chatty's voice shrieks over the subway intercom, "Goooood morning beautiful, beautiful people!" The car gives a collective groan. People slump forward, squinch their eyes tighter against Ms. Chatty's artificial sunshine. A few jam their fingers in their ears. Ms. Chatty, sealed in her conductor's box, seems unaware of the angst she's up against. She continues brightly, "I hope everyone's doing well on this wonderful, wonderful morning [it's so cold the thermometer broke, I reply in my thoughts]. Hold onto your belongings. This is a full train, so please, beautiful people, keep your belongings to yourself so others can have the seat next to you. Give your seat to the elderly, children, pregnant ladies, and the generally infirm. And, as always, IF YOU SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING." Her directives aren't changed by the sugar in her voice. They're still orders, and no one likes to be ordered around on Monday mornings in winter on the way to work. She tries to save herself with a grand finale, "Next stop: 168th St. Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Have a lovely, lovely day beautiful, beautiful people. It's a wonderful, wonderful world and it's people like you who make this city great!" The doors open and the lucky ones escape to work. The doors have barely closed on the captive audience inside when Ms. Chatty starts up again. She is relentless. No one can get a wink of sleep, let alone eaves drop on conversations. I wonder what she's like when she goes home at night. After a day of sugary subway talk, does she implode in a ball of anger? Can anyone who spends their days underground really be that happy? If so, I would like to have whatever she's on. In the meantime, I prefer Mr. Speedy. He gives it to you straight, and leaves you to your thoughts on Monday mornings.