The Pages

1660523_10152174788269437_2144488630_nI participated in a storytelling show on Monday, Spark Off Rose.  It was a piece that I had been writing for about three months.  There were several drafts and I had regular meetings with this particular show’s lead producer, Janet Blake, who is also a friend of mine.  (Started 13 years ago, by Jessica Tuck, Spark Off Rose does ten themed shows a year, with 5 different producers taking turns as lead producer.) It was an arduous process that was ultimately rewarding,  one of the best night’s of my life.  

The story that I shared on Monday was framed within the context of an acting class I took a few years ago, about my identification with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.   Really, though, it was the story of Ray in less than 8 minutes.  I didn’t even know if there was even a story there, but Janet encouraged me.  I hated what I wrote.  I fought to salvage threads that Janet told me didn’t serve the piece.  I complained.  I lost sleep.  Every looming deadline was something I dreaded.  But Janet was faithful.  Finally, the two of us arrived at a rehearsal draft for the show.  Our rehearsal was on Saturday.  I had a flat tire that morning, dropped my phone and chipped it a little, spilled coffee on my favorite sweater.  But the rehearsal itself went okay, actually, it went pretty well.  Every storyteller shared a beautiful story, some very funny, some haunting, some sad, all were affecting.  

And then the night of the show came.  Eric didn’t make it to the show because his car broke down.  I was nervous.  My chest was tight, one of my arms was sore and I wondered if I might be having a heart attack.  Also, I had the added pressure of going first.    I stood backstage, listening to Janet welcome the crowd, introduce the show, talk about the night’s theme, You Don’t Know Me.  And a resolve washed over me.  All the work has been done, I thought.  At this point, it’s just me and the pages.  All I have to do is go out there and read.  It was freeing. And then my introductory song, Is It Okay if I Call You Mine, chosen by me, began to play.

And what was on those pages?  My journey, in fact, things I’ve written about here on this blog.  I read about growing up in Kansas, dreaming of the world out there. I read about Bible college and New York and the game show and working in a restaurant and meeting Eric and finally, about swimming.   And the entire time, I clung to those pages. They weren’t just pieces of paper, of course, they were MY pages, MY story.

And it went the way I thought I could only dream it might go.  

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The Secret Life of Swimmers

Secret-Life-of-Swimmers-06A few days ago, at the pool, I was telling one of my pool friends about one of my last blog posts, Helen the Mouse.  She told me that she’s fascinated by pool culture as well, in fact, she had created an art project a couple of years ago.  She told me the name of it and indeed, I remembered reading about it when it first came out.  If you live in Culver City, you might remember seeing the images on streetlight pole banners. The pictures are evocative, crisp, sexy, and honest.  I loved them before I knew who did them and now I love them even more. You really never know who is swimming in that lane next to you.

Here is the link to the series.  

http://judystarkman.com/projects-/secret-life-of-swimmers/11/

Helen the Mouse

beatrix-potter-the-tale-of-two-bad-mice-1904-hunca-munca-arrives-to-clean-dollhouse.jpg.pngFor the last few years, as you know, Dear Reader, I start most mornings swimming laps at a nearby pool.  There are those that drop in from time to time, but for the most part, the people I see each day are the people I see every day.  I’ve developed a relationship with all of the regulars, even if our communication is mostly non-verbal.  I know who swims for an hour, who swims for 15 minutes, who doesn’t mind sharing a lane, who splashes unnecessarily so they don’t have to share a lane, who does flip-turns, who swims fast, who swims slow, who likes to swim in the sunny lanes, who likes to swim in the lanes nearest the wall.  And generally, all of the regulars have one thing in common, myself included.  We all look like swimmers.  Maybe it’s the chlorine damaged hair or the winter tanned skin or something else, but all of us, including us portlier ones, look like we swim regularly.  The one exception is a woman I call Helen the Mouse.  I call her that because she looks like a Helen and she looks like a mouse.

I’ve swam next to Helen for the last four years. She is probably around 55.  She looks like she’s a librarian or a secretary, but I doubt that’s the case, because, like me, she sometimes swims in the afternoon.  For a while I thought she might be a mystery novelist. I even went so far as to Google search images of Mary Higgins Clark. (not a match) She is unmarried, or at least she wears no wedding band.  Because she is fair-skinned, she always sprays herself with an ample amount of Neutrogena aerosol sunblock and wears a black long-sleeved rash guard.  Like me, she is not slim, but let me tell you something: she is a very good swimmer.  Once in the water, she swims her laps, at least a mile’s worth every day, with elegant form and respectable speed until she is finished.  I always wonder if she was a high school or college swimmer.  She really is that good.  

If you are a distance swimmer, you know you can get a little bored in that water.  It’s amazing the journeys one’s imagination can take one on during a mile or two swim.  One day, in my head, I wrote an entire short story about Helen, that embarrassingly was a subconsciously plagiarized reworking of William Inge’s Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, the point of both stories being that beneath the veneer of primness, there always lurks a beast aching to be set free, usually by sex.  In my sophomoric imagination, Helen swims every day, even still because it reminds her of high school when she was the secret hookup of the breathtakingly handsome captain of the swim team, probably named something ridiculous like Blake Devereaux.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I love Helen the Mouse. I love that even though she looks like a Helen and looks like a mouse, she still manages to be one of the best swimmers at my pool. And while I can conjecture about what drives Helen into the pool every day, I think I know she’s there for the same reasons I am there. It makes her feel young. It makes her feel accomplished. And more than anything, it makes her feel alive.

I Was a Diver

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I spent a significant portion of my New Year’s Eve at a nursing home not far from Temecula. If 12/31 is a day that lends itself to making one ponder the circle of life, spending it in a nursing home only increases such thoughts.

Last night, after the residents had been fed, (tuna salad sandwiches and chicken soup, which looked and sounded real good to me) the nurses gathered those able in the living room to watch That’s Entertainment! on television. I happened to walk in during a lavish Esther Williams swimming number.

“That’s Esther Williams, isn’t it?” I asked. A gentleman answered me, “Yes, I believe that is.” Some watched the screen transfixed, others stared into space. One woman, I’ll call her Missy, looked at me and told me that Esther Williams had been the best. I agreed. And then, I think, she told me that she’d been a swimmer herself. “Competitive,” I thought I heard her mumble.

The moment reminded me of my favorite scene from How to Make an American Quilt where the cantankerous Sophia, played by Lois Smith, at the end of the movie comes up to Winona Ryder’s character and girlishly confesses, “I was a diver.” And then even later, one of the last scenes (maybe it’s even the very last scene), we see 70-something Sophia climb the ladder of the high dive and sail into the water below.

Real life is often more heartbreaking than cinematic life. I could hope that Missy woke up this morning and went to swim a couple miles at Temecula County Pool, but I know that didn’t happen.

I hope that Missy had a good life. I hope she loved and was loved in return. I hope that the memories of good times are a comfort for her at this point in her life.

Who knows what 2014 holds for any of us? My wish for you is that it’s a year filled with good memories and I hope that those good memories are able to be a comfort to you in years to come.

My Sweet Mama

photo-39As I type this, my parents are driving from Kansas to Los Angeles to see me. My Mom won’t see this for a few days, perhaps not until after she gets home to Kansas in a couple of weeks. I love the fact that my Mom reads my blog, it keeps me from writing about things I probably shouldn’t write about.

A few days ago, I was swimming my laps and there was a woman, probably in her 30’s, who was attempting to swim in the lane next to me. She’d splash, flap her arms against the water, kick mightily. She had no sense that the water was there to buoy her, propel her even. She’d never had swim lessons, clearly. And I give her credit for being out there, with goggles and swim cap, no less, trying to figure it out. She made me think of my mother, who also never learned to swim. I think the reason I became a swimmer was because she wanted me to take swimming lessons every summer, she wanted me to have something she longed for as a child.

When you find out the story of people’s childhoods, sometimes you wonder how they ever made it to adulthood. If they’ve grown into a person who thrives, it’s even more of a miracle.

My Mother is the fourth of five children. Her Father died when she was two and she was raised by her Mother and three older brothers, Sam, Rocco and Mike. There was never very much money. Sometimes I lie awake at night worrying about money and (as far as I know) I don’t have 5 children to feed. I marvel that my Grandma, singlehandedly, could have raised 5 children to be 5 big-hearted, funny, smart, loyal adults, but she did.

There are things that my Mom missed out on by not growing up with a Father. Swimming lessons was the least of it. There were no Father-Daughter banquets, no one to make a Father’s Day card for, her brothers were the ones who taught her to drive.

And because my Grandmother worked so much and because she was one of 5, I think my Mother was always hungry for her love. At my Grandmother’s funeral, my Mother was so bereft she tried to crawl into her Mother’s casket as the family was saying their final goodbyes. Her brothers had to pull her away. I remember standing there, wondering if I should go to her or hang back. I was 20 at the time, not the best years in our particular Mother-Son relationship. I was a little embarrassed, but also I wondered if I might one day do the same thing with her one day. (My Mom and I have both probably seen the end of Imitation of Life one too many times, to be honest.)

I’m still haunted by the matriarchal character Violet Weston from August: Osage County, played onscreen by Meryl Streep. Her adulthood is so embittered because her childhood was so difficult and cruel. It made me think of my Mother, whose hardscrabble youth must have been similar, and yet she grew into my Mother, a woman who is loved by all who cross her path. A woman who always makes my favorite pork and potato burritos when I come home, a woman who is deeply sentimental about Lifetime Christmas movies, a woman who bakes butter pecan cookies for Eric every Christmas, a woman whose first words after her son came out to her were, “Nothing will change my love for you.”

My Mom’s favorite song is The Rose. Whenever it comes on the radio, she reminds me that this is the song she wants sung at her funeral. I won’t forget. I love the song almost as much as she does and though I’ve never told her, it always makes me think of her, too. If I had a dollar for every tear I’ve shed while listening to this song, I could buy my Mama a solid gold casket.

So, this song is for my Sweet Mama, I love her so.

Anatomy of a Scene

This was photographed by her then husband, Terry O'Neill the morning after she won an Oscar for Network.

This was photographed by her then husband, Terry O’Neill the morning after she won an Oscar for Network.

I got into a fight with a pregnant lady today.  I’m not proud of it.  I’ll tell you what happened as objectively as I can.  As I’ve written about before here, I like to start my day with a swim at the pool where I have a membership.  In the winter, it’s not too crowded, but in the summer it’s very hectic, almost the entire day, with people trying to swim in one of the five lap lanes.  Today, when I got to the pool, I saw that lane #4 was open, but the others were occupied.  I also saw there was one name on the waiting list, but I assumed that person was gone or had already gotten a lane and was no longer waiting for an available lane.  I even looked around to see if anyone looked like they were coming toward the pool.  I wrote my name on the board that includes the waiting list as well as who is in what lane.  I wrote my initials in the box for #4 and started to disrobe.  As I was shedding my clothes (I was wearing my suit underneath my clothes), a 30-something pregnant woman walked over to the lap pool from the other pool, a family pool where she’d been swimming. She saw that my name was on the board at #4 and then began to get into my lane.  I said, “That’s actually my lane.”  She said, in an English accent, “No, it’s my lane, I was on the waitlist.”  I explained that when I came to the pool, the lane was empty, so it was my lane.  She told me that one of the workers was supposed to be watching to tell her when a lane opened.  I told her that he did not do that, that the lane had been empty for awhile.  She went to complain to the guy and I got in the pool and started my swim.  After my first lap, “Victor” came over to tell me that it was her lane.  I said that the lane was empty when I got there.  I also said that she could share the lane if she wanted.  The lanes are a bit too narrow to share comfortably, but the rules of the pool are if someone wants to share with you, you have to let them.  When I told her we could share, she said, “I’m NOT going to share a lane.”  I said, “Actually, it says right there on the board that you have to share the lane.”  She said to me, “You’re going to kick my BABY!”  I said, “I won’t kick your baby, I know how to share a lane.  You’re welcome to share the lane, if you want.”  And then I resumed swimming.  A few minutes later, there was another available lane, but I noticed that she didn’t take it.  Apparently, she left the pool not long after our scene.  The entire time I was swimming, I vacillated between righteous indignation and exploring the possibility that I had behaved poorly.  Actually, I can tell you right now, I did behave poorly.  I should have just taken the high road at the beginning and said, “Fine, take the lane, I’ll take the next one.”  I didn’t do that, though.  By the time I was done with my swim, I was ashamed of myself.  I played out how I might apologize the next time I saw her.  Maybe we would become pool friends.  I do love England.

Then something happened.  As is my ritual, I shower after I swim.  I bring my pants and towel into the changing room with me while my shirt hangs on the chaise lounge.  When I came out of the changing room, I started to put my shirt on and I realized my shirt had been covered by a wet towel for at least 30 minutes.  It was soaked.  Someone had put that towel there on purpose.  I said something to Victor who acted like he didn’t know what happened.  I said something to the pool manager who feigned shock and outrage.  The pregnant lady was long gone by this point.  I really don’t know who soaked my shirt, but I thought about it the entire 90 minutes I was walking around wet at work.  Some might say that it was my comeuppance, but I actually thought it was sort of funny.  I also enjoyed telling the story to my co-workers, who graciously agreed with me that she was most in the wrong.  I’m sure that she spent the day telling her friends about the effeminate fat American guy who stole her lane at the pool, too.  In fact, there is a possibility that you reading this have heard the account from both sides at this point.  And if you have heard her version and my version, be honest, who was in the wrong?  If you think it was me, don’t tell me.  

Guest Blogger: Barbara Cameron

A couple days ago, my friend Barbara asked me if I was going to have guest bloggers. She said my post about pools prompted her to write something and wondered if I’d be interested in sharing it. I said I would be thrilled to post her piece. Not only is she the one person with whom I always talk books, she also recently won an award from the American Literary Review in the Creative Non-fiction category.

Enjoy:

Opening Ray’s envelope inviting us to join him in the pool, the visuals drew me right in. I was a swimmer my whole life. My father threw me literally in the ocean at age three and said sink or swim. I swam. Later, being on the Cherry Valley Swim Club swim team defined me in my early years, and I loved it because: I was fat and I was not an athlete. When we played baseball and football on my street, I was put in the most unnecessary position and constantly yelled at to “stop dancing around and daydreaming over there and pay attention.”
In the water, I felt thin. My body slimmed down and smoothed out, weightless. Every Saturday morning we had swim meets, and I won trophies because in the water as opposed to on land, I could move swiftly. One week, my father, strict, overbearing and one of the most amazing long distance swimmers I have ever encountered, must have gotten up from the sidelines because in the middle of a relay race, as I was doing my turn, twirling under the water, my favorite part – action specific to dance, gymnastics, which on land I couldn’t master gracefully, ready to press my feet against the cement and push off to give me that added advantage the “turn” gives all swimmers, I heard above me that bellowing voice from the man the entire neighborhood was afraid of, my father, yelling, “You’re losing time on your turns!”
It wasn’t an instant transition; it took building our summerhouse on the jersey shore, therefore, shifting allegiance naturally to the ocean, but by the time I was in high school I found myself saying, “I hate pools.” Why? I would say, “Too confining, no waves, nothing happens; it’s boring.”
Reading Ray’s piece I thought: no, too hard.
I fell in love with the ocean because I succeeded there, on my terms and on my father’s, because, like him, I was fearless in the ocean. And the poetry of this story is the same ironic poetry my father invokes in most stories I tell about him: the strictest father on the street, he trusted us, so we had no curfew. He had no rules in the ocean. He too stopped swimming in pools because they confined him; no cement walls, no lanes. He stopped swimming in the ocean while the lifeguards were there because – as he put it one day when they dragged it out and drove off with him in the beach patrol jeep because he refused to swim in front of the stand, “I’ll be damned if anyone is going to tell me where to swim in the god damn Atlantic Ocean.”
He took me out as far as we could go, almost unable to see the shore (terrifying my mother). He taught me how to get back to shore when we were caught in a rip tide together once. I fell in love with the waves crashing this way and that, getting out past the surf and floating, on a raft or on my body – bearing absolutely nothing and doing my favorite thing in the world: daydreaming.

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