Apr 21, 2003

Writing At Starbucks

I get writer's block a lot. Not that it was ever easy, but I am so easily distracted. Like I'll be sitting at my desk, my document open, and then it hits me. I have to check my email. Or, call someone. Make a list of things to do. Just when the muse hits me, I get an urge to smoke a cigarette. Oh yeah, I don't smoke. Not any more. Maybe that's why I can't write.

Your own home can be a death of creativity. I had a writing teacher say, write at the same place, same time, every day. Another said, if you're having problems writing at home, go somewhere else, somewhere that's quiet enough to write and think but has a little white noise activity to lull you into your creative muse.

And I came upon this great idea for a place for a writer to write. Shhh, don't tell anyone. Starbucks. It's perfect, because they have nice blonde tables, an easy flow of traffic and mildly hip music to lull you into a white noise concentration. And they have coffee. Coffee, the great incanter of the Muse.

Last week I had a couple of hours to kill between appointments, so instead of going home, I went to the Starbucks to write. Actually it was the one in Barnes & Noble. I figured I'd double my chances at finding a good spot. Head up to the non fiction stacks, find a Craftsman-knock off table, sit down with a nice nonfat latte, let the caffeine buzz kick in, and let the muse do the work.

Okay, wrong. First of all, Starbucks heats their milk to a tepid, just above botulism growing warm. When I get there, all the tables are full. So I hit BN. Every table desk and chair is taken there too. Two big black mama's with bags from Jamba Juice reading Ebony. A college couple holding hands and smooching over their biology textbooks. A man and woman doing a table read of And Miss Reardon Drinks a little. Apparently when Miss Reardon gets drunk, she also gets very loud. And there is one guy just sitting there. He's got a book on the desk, "the Big Cats of North America." But it's not even open. And he hasn't fallen asleep over it. He's sitting straight up, eyes adrift in some trance. None of these people have bought anything, they're just sitting there taking up space. I want to scream, what is wrong with you guys? Don't you have jobs?
Oh yeah, I don't either. So I head back to Starbucks, cold latte in my sweaty hands.

Now I really get a look at the torsos taking up space. A couple of Section 8 looking guys. An old man reading the New York Times, apparently from Front Page to Personals. Two guys playing chess. Go to the Park, already. Another guy with gelled hair and a vaguely actory face is giving his guest a booklet on the four spiritual laws.

The best table in the room is in the corner, against the window but out of the way of the afternoon sun. And it's taken up by some young white guy of a nebbish-frat mix, with a PowerBook G4 and a script open on the table. A screenwriter.

So I am forced to take a seat on the black pleather banquette cushions within earshot of Mr. Screenwriter. I settle, adjust the angle of tabletop and pull out my pen.

Mr. Screenwriter is on his cell phone. Has been on it since I got here. He is talking in a nervous staccato rhythm, dropping kind of words you hear in film school. Like, Production Costs and development deals. I overhear him say, "Well if you get in, I'd like to come in on the pitch as your producer." Well, he certainly isn't going to come in as the writer.

A table opens up in the full glare of the sun. But there is a narrow sliver of shade cast from a support column. I pull the table toward me on the banquette. But the chair is in the wrong place. I have to move further to the left. Move my latté. Business cards fall out of my bag so I put those back in. I move my bag down the banquette. Crumbs from a croissant on the banquette and my bag picks them up like a lint roller. Who eats here, Shreck?

I look up. In the three seconds that I was preoccupied with croissant droppings, a table has opened up! A table in the shade, away from Mr. Talking Screenwriter. And an old lady in a velvet baseball cap snags it. She sits down. She has a library book! Hey wont' someone police this place. She can't even buy something here. What's next? A thermos? Lo and behold. She brings out her thermos.

So, I am forced to accept my round table in the shade strip. I open my notebook. And Mr. Talking Screenwriter is on the phone again, talking to someone else. I hear the words "Barry Diller." He has an urgency in his voice now. The desperation of a writer trying to make a deal without a SCRIPT! What? He is getting off his phone. Praise Jesus.

I must have said this out-loud because the Four Spiritual Laws guys look up at me. I go back to my work. But now the sun has moved, and so has my column of shade. My notebook sits in blinding sunlight now. I move further down the pleather, then move the table, then readjust my things. In moving, I have given room for two men to sit near me. They are loud and gesticulative.

"What do you think you bring to the craft?"
"Well, as an actor, my craft is my emotion, and I practice accessing my emotions every day, like a pianist practices his scales."
"Mmm. Very well spoken."

I realize these are the Four Spiritual Law guys. Great. I give them the "One Way" sign. Using the wrong finger.

They are getting up. They're getting up to move to another isolated table in the shade that just opened up! And now that they're gone, Mr. Talking Screenwriter is back in view and earshot.

Mr. T.S.: (nervous). Whssup? I'm at Starbucks. Santa Monica. Cross from Banana. Writing.

I want to grab his T Mobile, shove it down his throat and send the guy on the other end a digital photo of Talker's esophagus.

Just then, the old man reading the New York Times folds up the paper, gets up and puts it back on the Newspapers For Sale rack. He didn't buy it. But he is leaving! Yay Hooray! I slip into his still-warm chair. I sit. Ah! A table in the shade. A column blocks out the view of Mr. Talking Screenwriter. I settle. Press my pen to the paper. The table wobbles a bit but adjust it calmly. All is well. At last, truly at last, I can write!

I'm all out of ideas now. Wish I could hear Talking Screenwriter. I'd have something to write about. So, I get out my cell phone and call a friend.
"Whssup? … Nothing, just writing."

Apr 12, 2003

What I'd Let Go Of; What I'd Keep

There is something cleansing about moving every few years. It forces you to streamline, to decide what is really precious to you, and what should be thrown out: like last year's velour J Lo tracksuit. It's like giving your house a colonic.

I've had to do this a few times in the last years. In 1998, I moved to New York. Almost everything I accumulated in my rent-controlled bungalow had to go. Furniture, house wares, those peculiar items that made friends gasp, "What great taste you have! And on such a budget!" I parceled out my personal effects like an estate sale. The entry hall table I never refinished. The wood entertainment center I decoupaged. When I visited my friends as a New Yorker, I'd spy them again. Like that wicker basket in Meredith's bathroom I sponge painted. So Y1K. Seeing my things at someone else's place was like seeing a ghost. A ghost of my former life. Maybe that's why dead haunt the living. They want to visit their things.

Just a couple months ago I moved back to LA and the whole process started over again. I shipped five boxes to LA. Pictures, a few thrift store suede coats. Actually, a whole box was devoted to suede coats. Another, business files. I left a few things in the basement of my New York house. A parka. A crappy ten-speed. Tax returns. Well, some things aren't worth going back for.

Of course, I've always had my parents' house to store a few things. But Dad died two years ago, and Mom is putting the house on the market. We were there 38 years. It's the only house I've known as a home.

So I've had to go through those things as well. Yearbooks. A china tea set I saved from my rent controlled bungalow. The tax returns. I don't know what the half-life of a 1040 is, but I'm going to have a celebratory cremation when they expire.

Then there are the childhood keepsakes. A Scottish doll in a kilt. A wristband from a summer camp. A diary from when age 11. "Kirsten O’Reilly is making everyone go against me. Linda met me under the bleachers and said she wasn't going to go along with it. I was going to ride my bike to the beach after summer school, but I went home and ate salami and watched General Hospital. I hate my hair. Alan + Susie = Love."

I remember puberty. I don't need to read about it. Into the dumpster.

My sister and I had a box of stuffed animals in our closet. We each kept one toy and gave the rest away. I had boxes of slides and photos I had taken of high school trips and plays. I kept a handful of photos and threw away the slides. After all, I never looked at this stuff except every Christmas, when I'd go through the box and think, "I should throw this away." But it stayed in the closet until the next Christmas. Next Christmas I wont' have the closet. Into the dumpster.

As for me, I'd like to let go of my anger.I know anger can be a good thing. A therapist once said, "Anger is your inner child's way of saying, hey, stop! You're violating my boundaries." But children also throw tantrums when they can't have Jujubes for breakfast.

My mom said I was an angry child. "Susie, I hear you say you're angry a lot. And if you're angry, people won't like you." I spent many years trying to be a good girl, but that anger still came up. In starving myself, throwing up, and becoming a religious nut. Eventually, about the time that therapist told me anger was okay, I became very very very angry. And it wasn't a good thing. Like screaming at the idiot at Sprint PCS for selling me a five-year cell phone contract. Or the time I tried to key a car that cut in front of me on a New York crosswalk. Then learning the driver was a thug. Which I found out when he got out of the car with a club.

Another thing I would like to let go of. Regret. I remember the first time I felt the weight of an irreversible decision. I pledged a sorority I thought my best friend Amy was going to get into, even though it wasn't my first choice. Even though I hated sorority life. But I was at UC Irvine, a school I hated in a sterile town of houses all painted taupe. I remember driving back home, speeding past the colorless condos and deserted streets, feeling this horrible pit in my stomach. Go back! Tell them you made a mistake! But I was too afraid to listen to that inner child saying, "Stop!" The next morning I found out Amy was rejected, and so I ended up with a bunch of cute, vacant premed girls. I hated it. My pledge advisor tried to keep me in. "At least you'll always have something to do every Friday night." With a bunch of premed idiots? I never went back.

But my life has been riddled with decisions I regret. At least it seems that way. Like never taking a full time career job because it interfered with acting auditions. But what auditions? A pampers commercial. Playing Woman Number One on a bad WB sitcom. Sure I have the measly residual checks to show I have worked. But here I am, moving back to the town I grew up in, with no viable job or career to make me a full-fledged adult. No mortgage, not even a rent controlled bungalow, and none of my tasteful knick-knacks.

But in fact, if I had made the other "better" choice, I might be sitting on a chaise lounge in my own back yard, wondering what my life had been if I hadn't decided to take the job as a legal secretary. I might not even be sitting in a back yard. I might be working on a Saturday, wishing I had the freedom I have now. Regret will kill you. Because you will spend the rest of your life living in a nightmare of what could have been.

What I would like to Keep

The one thing in myself I'd like to keep is faith. Faith in God. But that's not easy to hold onto in the face of family disintegration, personal disappointment and despair, world war. I've hated him sometimes.
"Go to hell!"
Sorry Susan. Already did that. Came back.
Well leave me alone!
Sorry, promised you I'd never leave you or forsake you."
Okay, then why won't you help me get a career and a love life?"
"Well, you know I help those who help themselves."

I cannot shake Him. I've heard it say, "if you don't' like your god, fire him and hire another." Right, like God is at a job interview and I'm the one behind the desk. "Hmm, it says here you are omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. And you love everyone. Explain Hitler. How hard would it have been to let a rock drop on his head? Really, the Red Sea. Why not a rock? And why not that Pampers commercial?

I know he's always been there. When I was a child and felt alone, like no one loved me, I always had Jesus. He seemed kind of wimpy sometimes. God and Jesus played this kind of Good-Cop, Bad-cop routine with me. God was the mean-assed drill sergeant, criticizing me, reminding me of all the ways I failed him, or just plain ignoring me. But then Jesus would come in and say, hey, it's cool. I still like you. But he didn't fix my problems. Like helping me kill Kirsten O’Reilly, the bully at school. Or making Billy Woldreck like me. Later when I'd ask for direction or success or a parking space, he was outta there. Too busy. Guess he had more important things to do. Like visit Mother Theresa.

But then I had to admit my idea of God was just a reflection of my father, who really was a mean-assed drill sergeant, and Jesus was like my Mom, who was full of sympathy but was too scared to stand up to my father in my defense. I'm a grown woman now but those images are hard to get rid of.

And when I really do think about it, it was never God who moved away or ignored me, it was me who moved away from Him. And when I do think about it, there's that thing about free will. God really couldn't kill Kirsten O’Reilly for me. But he brought me friends. Like my favorite cat, Tig, who showed up the same year Lisa did, and lived until the very month I went away to college. Tig saved my childhood life from despair. And I guess I have to admit he was a divine gift. Even before that, God worked a small miracle like saving Fuzzy, my favorite stuffed animal from sure death.

I got Fuzzy when I was four, before I was Fuzzy was a cat to me, through my brothers teased that she was really a Bunny. Just because Mom got her in a sale bin after Easter at Sears. I was only four, before my parents allowed me to get, in my words, "a cat that moved by itself." I had a string of cats that died on the street outside our house, but Fuzzy endured. I took her everywhere, and eventually her fuzzy fur wore into nubs. Nubby my brothers teased. Nubby the Bunny! Stop! You're' violating my boundaries! I would cry. Actually I threw a tantrum. Fuzzy's pink ears turned gray, lost an eye, and her neck split in so many places and she lost all the stuffing. I cried when my mother tried to throw her away. But Jim rescued her, restuffed her neck and painted her ears pink with shoe polish. Her neck slumped over, but she stayed with me.

One summer vacation we went to Washington. After a day trip to an island, we were going to take a train ride through the longest tunnel in the Pacific Northwest. The boys were thrilled. Trains were the one thing they and my father still had on common, and Dad saw it as his last chance to bond with them, as they were quickly reaching puberty and distancing themselves from him. We rode the hour-long ferry ride back to the mainland and went to the portside diner to wait for the train. That's when I felt it. That horror. I had left Fuzzy on the ferry. I had already left her in a hardware store in Eugene Oregon, and I caught hell for it. I was afraid to tell Dad. But he coaxed it out of me. Dad had the operator radio the ferry. The found her. We waited an hour and a half. We missed the train.

Dad drove the family, silent in the car, out to a promontory to watch the train pass. The boys stood out closer to the tracks, my father a few feet behind on a mound of dirt. I watched from the car. The train flew by, majestic and cruel. The boys watched the train fly by without them, full of resentment. And Dad watched the boys, their backs turned from him, as they would do for the rest of their lives. Dad is dead and buried. But as he lay dying, I bridged the gap that had grown between us over the years, and told him he was a hero to me that day.

I still have Fuzzy. She's the one stuffed animal I saved. She reminds me of what I was like as a child, when my parents were still all-good and all-powerful, when the future was just what summer vacation promised. She reminds me of simple things like kindness. After all, despite the fact she made Jim miss that train, he rescued Fuzzy from the garbage can and doctored her up for me. I guess she reminds me of myself. Worn out, just holding on by a thread. But still I manage to escape the trashcan. Okay God, forget the Hitler episode. I'm still here, obviously you're looking out for me.