Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24-Hour Flight of Fancy

Saturday July 24th was the 24 Hour Project, an international street photography event. It’s been happening since 2012 – with a gap last year for COVID – and I’ve been participating since 2015. The “rules” are that participants document the life of their cities for 24 hours. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, people are out on the street taking pictures and posting at least one picture an hour on Instagram, noting the time, the city, the country, and themselves. This year there were 4,395 official participants from 924 cities across 95 countries.

Leaving my house at 11:30 at night, knowing I’ll just be out on the street all night long is always strange. It was more strange at the end of July, after 18 months of really just being in my house, and always being locked up tight long before 11:30. And I suppose it was actually more surprising to see just how much I wasn’t alone on the street that whole time. There were folks out and about all night long, making me feel as if I really am the last person to come out of quarantine.

I love street photography. I’m no artist in this area, but I like getting to play along. The friend who introduced me to the 24HrPrj is a true magician. His pictures are extraordinary. I like taking pictures on the street, but for me the real fun of the project is the piece I added: for every photo I post, I write a tiny story.

I like making up the stories because it connects me to my fiction brain, a piece of myself that mostly lies fallow these days. And creating histories for strangers feels familiar. It’s what an old friend and I used to do whenever we were out – in cafes, in bars, on the street. Imagining strangers lives was a game we returned to again and again. (It got us into trouble a few times when we were a little too loud in our imaginings, but we kept at it all the same.)

As much as I like taking these candid photos of people, I also struggle with it. I’m taking their pictures without their permission. I’m posting them online. I have had the experience of having someone photograph and film me without my permission and do it with the express purpose of mocking me. It was demoralizing and shaming and enraging and painful. Seeing people looking at candid photos of me and calling me a beast and a monkey is one of the most hateful things that’s ever happened to me.

I think about that when I post my pictures. I know that I am not the same as the people who took and shared images of me. I don’t post pictures maliciously, don’t post with the intention of mocking the subject. I have posted a few stories that are less than flattering … but those have usually been verbatim conversation I’ve overheard from the subjects because I’ve been amazed (and sometimes scandalized) by what they’ve actually said. But those are extremely rare.

Sometimes, the stories I create are inspired by what’s happening in the photo. One picture I shared from the three o’clock hour is a young white woman standing outside a building. She’s talking on the phone and has one arm crossed over her chest. She looks peeved. And she’s looking right at me. I titled this picture “Karen,” because it was just too easy to imagine her calling the police to come see about me being on her block minding my own business. To be clear, that’s 100 percent NOT what she was doing. I blurred out her face because it seemed unfair to label her a racist when she had done not a single thing wrong. But the story had formed the moment I saw her.

Sometimes the stories are a catalyst to tell something from my own life, just draped over the strangers I’ve photographed. A picture I took in the noon hour is of a Black man sitting and eating a slice of pizza. He’s looking at the pizza very thoughtfully, and it made me think about the pizze place down the block from my house that closed during the height of the early pandemic. It wasn’t a great pizza place – there is far superior pizza all over the place – but I really liked the Italian couple whose place it was. The husband with his funny little hat like the one Art Carney work on The Honeymooners. He always asked after me, noticed when he hadn’t seen me in a while. Just really nice. And then, suddenly, while I was holed up in my apartment hoping Covid wouldn’t kill me, the shop closed. And no one could tell me what had happened, whether business was bad or Covid had come for either or both of the owners. There’s a new pizza place there now. And it’s got slightly better pizza, but I miss the old shop, the old owners.

Sometimes people make a particular gesture or I hear a snippet of their conversation, and I try to make a story about who they seem to be in that moment. In another picture from the three o’clock hour, I was on the 6 train headed north. The man across from me had his hand over his face. He caught my attention because I gave ther most exhausted sigh I’ve ever heard. And immediately I imagined his work schedule was to blame. It was three-thirty in the morning. How many jobs did he have? What was the goal he had in front of him that kept him dragging himself to work at that hour? And there was the story.

Years ago, I got into writing 420-character stories because I’d heard an interview with Lou Beach, and (as I’ve established) I love a challenge. I wrote a bunch of those stories, a few of which I really loved. I was surprised by how much of a narrative could be squeezed into so little space. I was also surprised that most of the stories I wrote were sad or dark. Was it easier to get to those feelings quickly? Did pleasure and joy need more expansive language to sound real?

Where I decided to create and IG account a couple of years later, it was with the express purposed of using the pictures as story-starters. A thousand years ago, when I was 20, I fell in love with Duane Michals and the tiny stories he wrote to accompany his photos. I was in the Modern Art Museum in Paris, and seeing his pictures felt dramatic, like a shifting of the ground beneath me. Those words and images were exactly what I wanted, all the right pieces pulled together. So obvious, and yet I hadn’t see anyone do it quite that way before. I tried my hand at a few, but I was still much too timid then, not yet comfortable with my storytelling voice.

On IG, I was ready. I could stretch out and see what worked for me and how it worked. I had a lot of fun with it … And then I got busy, got lazy. It just became easier to take and post a picture with some silly or snarky hashtags and move on.

When I learned about the 24 Hour Project, I knew I wanted to come back to stories, wanted to stretch again, remember who I was as a fiction writer with the most micro of microfiction.

In theory, I could take a picture of anything, of anyone, and there would be a story there. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that I look for the stories before I snap the photos. Something has to click in that part of my brain for the picture to look interesting for me. I mostly take pictures of people, which makes that easy for me. I find people fascinating (even as I find them horrifying, infuriating, irksome …).

I look for stories: a gesture, a pose, a surprise clothing choice, beautiful hands, a longing glance, a torn sleeve, an operatic laugh. I want to be drawn in, and I want to try to capture a tiny piece of a world that might draw viewers and readers in.

I reveal a lot more of myself in my 24-Hour stories than I could ever reveal of the people I photograph. Of course. And that’s okay. I’m pretty much the Queen of Oversharing, so giving myself away in these bits of telling feels entirely on-brand. But I hope I’m also shining a light on other people, on the simple face that each of us has beauty, has something that makes us interesting, something that showcases our worthiness.

Those women who shot video of me on that bus in Mexico and then held it up next to a caricature of a monkey, they didn’t have the ability to see something beautiful in me, something interesting, something that could have made me worthy of kindness, respect, human decency. I want to give that to the people I photograph. Humanizing strangers makes us see one another more clearly.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to writing short stories outside of IG, if I’ll ever go back to any of the novels that are moldering in my file boxes. I don’t know if I have the same pull toward longer fiction that I had for years and years. But these wisps of story, these tiny moments coupled with an image grabbed on the fly and (mostly) on the sly … this is a telling that feels like home for me, like I’ve found a place where fiction and I can be comfortable together.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Drifting: The Slow and the Curious

So ask me why yesterday turned out to be the day I would start watching the Fast franchise? What in the actual crazypants hell? How many years have these movies been in the world? How much have I never had any interest in watching them? And then yesterday …

I was thinking about Paul Walker and the farewell video with him and Vin Diesel taking different forks at the end of the road. Why have I seen that video when I’ve never seen the movies? And why was it in my head yesterday? #TheEternalQuestions

While I certainly wasn’t a Paul Walker hater, I was never a fan, either. I often confused him with other generic-white-guy actors (Ryan Reynolds primarily … yes, I know, they look and are nothing alike). And I was pretty much unaware of most movies he was in. I knew about the “Fast Family” (as, apparently, some people call it), but not much. I love a good action movie, love car chases and crime capers and all that. Still, the Fast movies have never called my name.

Until they did yesterday.

There’s a moment pretty early in the first movie where Walker gives a smirky smile and delivers his line, and a lightbulb came on over my head. “Oh,” I thought. “So these are just really not good.”

(Because, well … yeah. I mean, isn’t that why I knew not to watch them in the first place?)

But I kept watching that first one. And then rolled right along into 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a clever naming thing, but that’s not enough cleverness when there’s a whole movie to watch. Not by half. But Devon Aoki with her can’t-be-a-real-girl face is in it, and Ludacris’ afro is in it, and Eva Mendes’ mole … I watched it. Of course I did. I had bought in, wanted to understand how the whole Family was going to be corralled into one crew, wanted the backstory that would lead to Tyrese’s social media meltdown over Hobbs and Shaw. Sure.

It’s good that yesterday was Tuesday. That meant I needed to draw the line, close the curtain on this nonsense before it got too late in the night. I did, however, start watching Tokyo Drift. Because yes, now I’m totally bought in. I watched this overseas Part the Third through the opening plot device that gets Sean, the lead character this time around, sent to Japan. Watched a long chunk of it as I ate dinner tonight. Pretty sure I’ll watch the rest before I sleep.

Aside from being all-in with this nonsense, I’ll also watch because of Lucas Black, the actor who plays Sean, because of the mind-blowing realization of who Lucas Black is. All through that opening sequence, I tried to work out where I recognized him from. When his plane landed in Tokyo, I paused the film and turned to Google for the answer. And immediately saw that yes, of course I recognize him because he’s on NCIS: New Orleans. Okay … but then I got dope-slapped by the not-actually-believable-but-clearly-true reality of him being the boy from American Gothic. I still can’t process the fact of that. I spent at least 30 minutes scrolling through stills from the show and having to admit that yes, that boy’s face is obviously the same face as the man playing a boy in Tokyo Drift. I have to admit it, but it’s just entirely impossible.

So yes, as long as I can find them for free, I’ll keep watching these movies.

But … WHY?!

I keep watching, but I can’t lie and say that I’m enjoying them. Paul Walker had a great smile, and his face in these movies was definitely the face of a guy you’d have fun hanging out with. He looks and moves like a nice guy. Maybe he was a jackass. I have no idea. But he doesn’t look like one. It’s sad that he’s dead and that he died young. It’s still not enough of a reason for me to be watching these movies instead of the many other things I could and should be doing, could and should be spending my mental energy on.

Oh.

That last bit is the missing piece. Yes, of course it makes sense that I would choose this moment to submerge myself in something that will wash over me with little impact (aside from the Lucas Black shock).

Because so many things are whirling together in a vortex of awful, and so many of them are imploding and exploding very particularly in this moment, and it’s more than I can manage. The destruction of our system of government, the earthquake in Haiti, the building wave of delta-Covid, the instant and catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan.

It’s too much. My heart and head just … can’t.

And, frustratingly, I can’t seem to do any of the things that usually distract me from the world. I just sit and stare at my Spanish homework. My writing projects collect dust. My apartment has still not been organized into a home. …

But I can watch these movies. I can stare at these things in which I have no investment, stare at the screen and not have to think. And it didn’t have to be this franchise, of course. It could be any series, any set of movies in which I have no stake. Somehow, this just happened to be the one this time.

And it has perks. Paul Walker was cute. And this third installment has introduced me to Sung Kang, who is also cute. Eventually the Rock will make an appearance, and he’s always a pleasure to look at. Perks.

*

I’ll have to start reading the news again. And before too long, too. I’ll have to find the strength to step back into the maelstrom that is this moment in our history. But I’ve got six and a half more of these distractions to go. And I welcome the oblivion of that. I’m not completely submerged, but there’s a buffer space around me that I hope is deep and high and wide enough to give my head and heart the time they need.

I’m on the drift … and it’s exactly the ride I need.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The branches of the learning tree …

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, friends and neighbors!

Today’s Google Doodle was lovely: https://g.co/doodle/hjchhys. Fingers crossed they have one of these every day this week!

My Teacher Appreciation tonight goes out to Michael, an extraordinary adult education teacher. I met him at one of my first adult ed jobs. We didn’t work together then, but I had the chance to observe his class once and had several opportunities to get some impromptu professional development training when I found myself lucky enough to be in the teachers’ office doing prep at the some time he was there.

Years later, we ran into each other in the hallway at grad school, and he mentioned that the program where he was currently working was looking for a new instructor. I got the job and then began seven excellent years of teaching with and learning from Michael.

I arrived at that job with some teaching experience, but a lot of that had been teaching high school students, and adult education — especially adult literacy — is entirely different from teaching high school English. I had taught both literacy classes and high school equivalency classes before I started working with Michael, and I’d learned a lot in those jobs, but I wouldn’t say I was a good teacher then. I was good-hearted, and that maybe counted for something. I wanted to be a good teacher for my students, and that surely counted for something, too. But I really needed to just simply be a good adult ed teacher, not just dream about being one.

Working with Michael was the bright, dividing line for me. Before that job I was well-meaning and okay. That job helped me become well-meaning and good. I learned to calm down and trust myself more. I learned new ways to imagine what a classroom could be. I learned that I could fully lean into my creativity and bring my whole self to the classroom. I learned to create different environments and experiences for the students to offer opportunities for them to experience and exhibit mastery even while reading and writing remained steep hills to climb. I learned to ask questions and more questions. I learned how to study my own learning. I learned how to be wrong without shame, drama, planetary implosion or other catastrophes.

I was learning pretty much all the time. For all of those years. The entire team of our program were pivotal in my teaching and development. I wasn’t only working with Michael, after all, but my significant collaboration was with Michael. In our last year of teaching together, he and I received the New York City Literacy Recognition Award, the first (and I think still the only) teacher team to receive the award. Working with Michael was one of the best gifts of my career.

And one of the hidden gifts of that experience? Teaching with Michael brought me back to writing poetry. I had stopped writing poems after a horrible experience in a poetry workshop my freshman year in college. The wall between me and poetry was erected then, my firm belief not only that I couldn’t write poetry but that I absolutely shouldn’t. Poetry was for other people, for talented people, for POETS. And I was most definitely not one of those.

Michael is a poet. And we brought a lot of poetry into our adult ed program. And we encouraged learners to write poetry. And Michael pushed me to not be afraid to write poetry, too. That was when I saw that I couldn’t very well push my students to try things that were challenging and daunting for them if I wasn’t brave enough to try them myself. After 12 years of not writing a single poem, I wrote my first poems in that program, in class with my students. They weren’t spectacular, but they were poems and I had written them.

The wall between me an poetry is still high in places, but it’s also cracked and crumbled in many other places. I mean, I write at least 30 poems a year these days because of National Poetry Month, so I can’t pretend that I don’t write poetry. I still feel some of the damage from that ugly workshop so many years ago, but I also remember the fun I had in class with Michael and our fabulous students, playing games and finding rhythms and getting words on the page.

Michael. Thank you for everything you taught me in all the ways you taught me. I cannot imagine what I’d be doing with my life if I hadn’t worked with you at SINC. Those years are the foundation that has made the rest of my career in adult ed possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you. ❤

Psychokiller, qu’est-ce que c’est …

(Before I dive in — all vax shot side effects seem to have passed! I feel like myself again.)

Forever ago, I worked nights as a video transcriber for Inside Edition. This was back when the show was first on the air, when David Frost was the front man and Bill O’Reilly was an anchor (did they call them anchors?). It was my second year living in the City. I shared an apartment with my sister and spent my days working as a word processor (is that even a job anymore?). My sister worked at Barnard College, maybe in Student Services or something like that. Whatever her job, it gave her access to the jobs that were posted for the Barnard girls, and in at least two instances, I applied for and got those jobs. The Inside Edition gig was the first of them. (Should I feel guilty about “taking” a job from an undergrad at Barnard? I don’t. My sister and I had next to no money. We needed every penny we could earn. And, too, both jobs were awful. I think I actually did the Barnard girls a favor by sparing them.)

All of the other video transcribers were guys. We worked in tiny rooms, just enough space for a TV, VCR and a typewriter (yes). It was a miserable job for which I didn’t receive an hourly wage but was paid by the number of tapes I could get through. And I’d leave the Upper East Side studio around midnight and have to make my way to Washington Heights. Because I was a woman, and the only woman on the transcription team, my supervisor gave me permission to add an extra video to my tally each night to cover the cost of a cab home. But since I had that job during the time my sister and I referred to ourselves as “The Poverty Twins,” I absolutely added the extra tape to my tally … and absolutely kept taking the bus uptown after work. Sometimes the trip was unnerving — the long wait for the bus transfer at a super-isolated stop on Riverside Drive — but groceries and rent seemed more vital, I guess.

Most of the interviews I transcribed were painfully stupid — the police chief who was angry because the teenager at his local sandwich shop had put too much salt on his roast beef in what was surely an act of anti-police violence.

Then one night I got a bin of tapes, and it was an interview with Diane Downs. I transcribed for hours. Hours alone in that tiny room just listening to this disturbed and disturbing woman. And I’m thinking about this now because — for reasons only the algorithms know — FB put a link to the Inside Edition episode in my newsfeed this morning. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Diane Downs. I think about her far more often than I’d like. Because of Farrah Fawcett’s excellent portrayal in the TV movie, Small Sacrifices — the “Hungry Like a Wolf” courtroom scene in particular — and because that always reminds me of transcribing the interview.

My instructions for transcribing videos were to write down everything that was said, with timestamps, and to include camera movements (close-ups, wide shots, etc.), and flag any interesting responses or facial expressions or bombshell moments that the reporter might particularly want to take a look at to consider including in the final piece.

Clicking through the FB link this morning was the first time I ever saw the piece as it ran on Inside Edition. They should have included more of Downs.

Transcribing the interview that night, watching Diane Downs, was both fascinating and terrifying. I’m being silly with the title of this post (and now have that song as an earworm), but Downs was absolutely a psychopath. I watched her and had no doubt she was capable of anything, no doubt that she was guilty. At one point, she tried seducing the reporter. I mean, “seducing” isn’t quite the right word. Not exactly. But definitely trying to win him, to get him to be interested in her and to like her — so that he’d believe her, I imagine. And her actions with him seemed automatic, as if she didn’t plan it or have to think about it. That kind of seduction was her go-to way of dealing with men. And when it became clear that she wasn’t going to win him to her side, she changed. Nothing dramatic. It was like the really good eye acting some people can do (Gary Oldman comes first to mind). They don’t move a muscle, but something in their eyes shifts and everything is suddenly different. I could watch the moment when she stopped seeing him as useful, when she stopped caring that he existed. He must have seen it and I’d guess that it felt a little unnerving. I don’t ever want to have someone look at me like that.

She scared the crap out of me.

She scared me because she was scary but also because she was so … anybody. She was such a regular person, someone I could imagine knowing, being in class with, working with. And something about the ordinariness of her masking the absolute horror of her upended me, blew my sense of equilibrium. The idea that anyone could be so regular and be a ruthless killer isn’t new, of course. Perfectly normal-seeming people do all kinds of vile and violent things. But something about Diane Downs was different for me. What I saw when I watched her interview tapes settled in me and freaked me out. I left my dark little cubby, dropped off my videos, transcriptions, and tally sheet, left the nearly-empty studio and headed up to 79th Street for the crosstown bus. Every person I saw on the street made me nervous. I could feel fear rise in my throat. I got to 79th Street … and hailed a cab.


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Original Slicer - GirlGriot