Living the Dream

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It’s no secret that I am trying to be a writer. I am not yet ready to call myself a writer, that would be too audacious. I’m not sure when I will be ready to assume the mantle, but this past weekend I took a step in that direction. I attended a writers’ conference!

I am a veteran of conferences – as an attendee and a presenter – but those were school board-related, where my identity was firm. I had a love-hate relationship with those conferences. I loved the learning – hearing experienced, knowledgeable professionals share insights gets my adrenaline going. I also enjoyed presenting information that I thought would educate and motivate school board members. The thing I hated about those conferences was the stress – juggling my stuff (I always seemed to have too many things!) without spilling coffee all over myself, making small talk with people I didn’t know, getting adequate sleep after exceptionally long days where I had to be ‘on’ for so many hours. The stress was a big part of the conference experience.

I wanted to further develop my writing, and improve my odds of getting published, so months in advance I ponied up the money and committed to spending Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh to attend the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ conference. I even paid extra to get a half hour one-on-one session with an agent. I thought I was ready to take the plunge.

One would think, given that I was so invested in this conference, that I would plan my time so that I would arrive fresh and rested, ready to maximize the experience. One would be wrong. Here was my schedule, of my own design, for the week leading up to it.  I drove with my brother, Mark, from Albany to New Jersey on Wednesday night so that we could escort my Mom to Florida on Thursday. We were in Florida to attend my aunt’s unveiling (a Jewish tradition where the headstone is unveiled at the cemetery about a year after a death). We flew back on Monday, arriving in Newark at 9:00 p.m. We drove back to Albany that night, arriving at 1:30 a.m. I had Tuesday to do laundry and get organized. On Wednesday I drove to New York City to leave my car with Daniel so he and Beth could visit Leah over the holiday weekend. I took Amtrak back to Albany on Thursday. Gary met me at the station and we left for Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh at 10:30 pm. The conference started with breakfast at 8 a.m. on Friday.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep that well Thursday night. It was one of those nights where you wake up every hour and look at the clock. I finally fell into a restful sleep at about 6 a.m. When the alarm went off at 7:30, I was disoriented, to say the least.

I stumbled around in the hotel room (the room-darkening curtains worked a little too well), trying not to disturb Gary, and managed to shower and dress without injuring myself. I got down to the lobby and saw that it was pouring so I decided to treat myself to a cab even though the conference was only a 10-minute walk away. The doorman hailed me a cab. I took a deep breath and thought, “Okay, this is good. I’m on time. I can relax.” Not so fast.

The cab rattled and bumped down the potholed streets. The driver, in a muffled, raspy, unfriendly voice, warned me that I should buckle up or hold on. I did as I was told. In anticipation of walking to the conference I had set up the map function on my phone, so a voice was giving directions – directions which the driver wasn’t following. I said, “Oh, that’s just my phone,” thinking he’d be wondering about the disembodied voice. He said, sounding defensive and annoyed, “Oh, people do that all the time. They use their phones and say, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ Not realizing that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and might know a better route than the damn phone.” I started to explain that I wasn’t checking on him, but thought better of it. Fortunately, we arrived at my destination within minutes. I was relieved to get out of the cab.

I found my way to the conference registration desk and breakfast. I even managed to find some very pleasant women to sit with– one from Missouri (originally from Long Island) and another from Texas – who were newcomers to the conference. It seemed like things were settling down when it was time to go to the first lecture. The three of us trooped upstairs to the ballroom for the session and settled into seats. I reached for my phone to silence it and couldn’t find it. I went through my purse, my briefcase, the conference bag, my pockets… multiple times. I went back downstairs to where we had breakfast. I retraced my steps. No luck.

I went back up to the ballroom, where the lecture had not yet begun. My new friend from Texas offered to let me use her phone to call Gary. “Please pick up!” I repeated to myself, thinking Gary would ignore the call since he wouldn’t recognize the number. Fortunately, he answered. I explained my dilemma and said I had a feeling that the phone fell out of my pocket during that godforsaken cab ride. After consoling me, he readily agreed to try and track it down. I gave him as much information as I could (white van, cranky cab driver, etc.). We made up to meet at the hotel room after my consultation with the agent, which was scheduled from noon until 12:30.

I still had time before the talk began to go up to the front of the room and ask the conference organizer if she would make an announcement about my lost phone. She did. Although everyone was being very nice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a sign that I didn’t belong at the conference. It didn’t take much to derail my inchoate confidence.

I tried to concentrate on the speaker. I took notes, writing down articles and books that were referenced as stellar works of creative nonfiction. Following the opening lecture, there were breakout sessions. I went to one on research and fact-checking. I barely had time to think about the meeting with the agent. It was quickly coming up on the time for that meeting. I left the breakout session early to try and gather my thoughts. What was it I was trying to accomplish with my meeting?

Though I wouldn’t allow myself to say the words to myself, let’s be honest. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the agent to be so bowled over by me, she would ask to sign me up right there. My logical brain knew that wouldn’t happen, so I did think of some questions.

Our conversation was cordial. I briefly described my blog and that I had two goals: growing my readership and developing a couple of themes from the blog into a book. She shared some insight into what an agent looks for. She told me that having 40,000 followers will get a blogger noticed. Okay, then. While I don’t know how to interpret the numbers WordPress provides, I know I’m nowhere near that!

I asked a couple of more questions, she gave me a couple of suggestions. We made some small talk about the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She commiserated over the loss of my phone, and she took my card, at least I think she did. Who knows if she kept it or looked at it?

We shook hands, she wished me luck. I gathered my things and walked back to the hotel to meet Gary. I was in a funk. I was bone tired, disappointed and worried about finding the phone.

I opened the door to the room to some good news! Gary, after persistently calling my phone, reached the cabbie. Gary was similarly unimpressed with his personality, but at least he agreed to meet at 4:00 p.m. at the taxi stand in front of the hotel. He asked for a cash reward. We weren’t sure that he would show up, but we had hope.

I filled Gary in on my meeting with the agent; he was philosophical about it. “You know what steps you need to take. You just need to decide whether you want to.” True. He also pointed out that I should take some time to process all that had happened. There were no decisions to be made immediately.

Part of me wanted to get under the covers and go to sleep. That would be a decision. I didn’t, though. We had some lunch, he filled me in on the particulars of tracking down the phone. I revived a bit and went back into the fray. Gary would message me on my computer, which I had with me, to let me know the status of the phone. I returned to the conference.

I attended the sessions, still not fully present, but better than the morning. I checked my computer at 4:15 and there was a message from Gary; he had the phone! What a relief! And, the day was almost over!

The last session of the afternoon concluded, I met Gary. We went out for a nice dinner. I had a cocktail and regrouped. I got a better night’s sleep and went back for day two.

I’m glad I did. I met some more interesting people, most were making a living doing something else, but wanted to write. I met a massage therapist, an airline pilot, several teachers, a nurse practitioner, a publicist, a researcher on nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan! On that second morning of the conference, I sat down to breakfast next to a young man from New Orleans. He is in the midst of an MFA program. He asked about my situation. I told him I retired two years ago to pursue writing. He smiled, “So you’re living the dream.” “I suppose I am.”

After listening to author after author at the conference talk about their journey, I learned just how daunting this endeavor is: getting published isn’t easy and even if you are lucky enough to get published, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

After all is said and done, it comes down to this: do I want to tell stories? Do I want to work on the craft? Right now, the answer is yes.

Culture Clashes Real and Imagined

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I admit it: I was a New York snob (maybe I still am). My worldview was like the famous New Yorker magazine cover (above) that shows New York City looking west from Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where the city is a bustling metropolis and then the rest of the United States is a vast empty space, devoid of anything interesting. It was with that mindset that I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982. I was 23 years old, engaged to Gary.

The late December morning dawned gray and cold. Good weather for driving. We, my parents and Gary, were standing in front of the house in Canarsie, getting ready to say our goodbyes. My Dad pulled me aside. “How bout you go to a justice of the peace when you get out there? You can still have the wedding, as planned, in July. But this way you’d be married.” Dad looked at me with his big blue/gray eyes, questioning, hopeful. I was sorry to disappoint him, but said, “Dad, we aren’t going to do that. There’s no reason to. It will be fine.” I turned to put the last few things in the back seat of my cobalt blue ’72 Toyota Celica.

He didn’t want his baby girl ‘living in sin,’ even if it was only for six months. It was six months too long for him. Fortunately, he didn’t pursue it further. We all hugged, and Gary and I got on our way.

We drove to Pittsburgh with high hopes and some anxiety. Gary had successfully completed his first semester of medical school. Now I was going to join him. I needed to find a job. I had some savings as a cushion, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drain it.

Pittsburgh was slowly on the rebound from the collapse of the steel industry. The landscape bore the scars of it. Buildings were soot stained. The Carnegie Library, down the block from our apartment, was gray sandstone heavily streaked with black, but the inscription, Free to the People, was still quite clearly etched over the main doors. Hulking mills, some vacant, some producing steel at reduced capacity, lined the river. The city remained the headquarters for a number of large companies that inhabited gleaming skyscrapers downtown.

Pittsburgh had the feel of the Midwest to me. I didn’t know geographically how it was characterized, but culturally it didn’t feel like an eastern city. The influence of its immigrant history, largely Polish, Germanic and Italian, was imprinted on the stores, restaurants and, most importantly, churches that dominated. Unlike New York City, which certainly had ethnic pockets but the sum of which was a hodge-podge; Pittsburgh felt more homogenous. It felt like there was a dominant culture and it was defined by the Catholic Church. While there was a Jewish community, it was quite small, and it felt small. This took some getting used to. After all, other than Israel, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

After five months of pounding the pavement, I was about to register for secretarial work with a temp agency when a solid job opportunity came through. I had nearly exhausted my financial resources when I got a job with the city’s Finance Department.

There were some noticeable differences between the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Operations, where I worked before I left, and the Finance Department. The first was the air quality. I worked with several men who chain-smoked through the day. Offices and conference rooms didn’t usually include windows and there was nothing I could do to disperse the fog that permeated the air. Somehow there weren’t nearly as many smokers in New York City’s Mayor’s Office.

Another difference: when we went out for a drink after work, I could not keep up with my new colleagues (not that it was a contest)! People would take turns buying rounds. I almost never got a chance to buy (and it wasn’t a strategy to avoid it). My drinks would be lined up on the bar.

Aside from air quality and drinking habits, there were actually more important differences. I worked with very few women, and there was only one at the management level. Many of the employees were only high school graduates. I was an outsider by virtue of my age, gender, education, religion and, of course, as a New Yorker. Sometimes it felt quite lonely, but there were some interesting conversations, too, especially about religion and faith.

Some of the cultural differences were more imagined than real. Gary and I invited one of his classmates, and his fiancé, to dinner at our apartment. Budgets being what they were, we didn’t eat out often and most of our socializing entailed going to each other’s apartments, eating, watching football or basketball and playing games like charades. Alcohol may have been involved.

As I recall, Ron and Ann were the first people we invited over. They were both Pittsburgh born and raised. I planned a menu after considering various possibilities. I worried that Ron and Ann would think the food I prepared was weird.

Gary and I kept kosher in our apartment (we didn’t when we ate out), so we didn’t mix meat and dairy. I was worried if I prepared a meat dish they might ask for parmesan cheese. I was worried if I made a vegetarian dish they wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought they wouldn’t know what it meant to keep kosher. I settled on making a ratatouille with ground beef (no cheese) and then worried that they wouldn’t know what it was.

Turned out Ron and Ann were more worldly than Gary and I, which in retrospect wasn’t saying much. Ron had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and, if I remember correctly, majored in art history! Ann had been an English major and worked as an editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Gary’s classmates weren’t science majors as undergrads. Turned out Ron and Ann were quite comfortable eating my ratatouille. We had a great time, it was the first of many meals and laughs shared.

I realized I shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they came from, or any other single characteristic, for that matter. Of course I should have known better. When I stop and think about it, my Zada, who appeared on the surface to be a common laborer, was a self-taught Shakespearean scholar with the heart of a poet. Why would I buy into the stereotype implied by that New Yorker cover? But I did, and to this day, I need to check myself.

An Unexpected Weekend in Erie, PA

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Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?

Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.

We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.

December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.

The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.

We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.

Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.

We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.

We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.

We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.

The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.

We went back to our room and went to sleep.

The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.

The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!

Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.

The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.

By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!

To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.

We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.