A SLOWER LANE

I was thinking of taking a blogging vacation … and I may do it yet. But without further ado, I am going to slow down. I need a break. I’m beginning to feel a bit too much as if I’m back at work. I don’t want to feel like that. This is supposed to be fun.

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So, if I don’t post as much, there’s nothing wrong. I want a change of pace. Especially with vacations coming up, I’d like to hang a little looser.

Before we blogged, we wrote letters

Garry was saying he was taping an old movie, “A Letter to Three Wives.” He thought the whole concept of writing letters was kaput. No one writes letters anymore. We may dash off a note on a card, but a whole letter?

“When,” I asked Garry, “Was the last time you wrote a real letter.”

“When I wrote to you, in Israel?”

“Yup,” I said. “And the letters I wrote to you from Israel were the last personal letters I ever wrote.”

“Funny about that,” he said.

“Sure is,” I answered.

That was 1987.

GET IT IN WRITING

When I was young and naïve, still trying to get established in my chosen profession, I happily accepted any job with a connection — no matter how tenuous — to writing. In those pre-Internet days, getting a job was simpler than it is now.

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You called or wrote a letter. Included your résumé or brought it with you. You went for an interview. A day or two later, they called you back. It was either “Yes, you’re hired,” or “No, thank you.”

Every job didn’t require 30 hours of interviewing with everyone from the company president to the IT crew. There was a job to do. You were qualified to do it, or not. Whoever interviewed you had the authority to hire you. That was why he or she was doing the interviewing. Unlike today.

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I don’t remember the details of the particular job, but I remember it was in the city. Manhattan. I wasn’t thrilled about its location. I lived in Hempstead, on Long Island. Getting there and back meant taking the Long Island Railroad which was not comfortable or dependable in the 1960s. I’m told it has improved since I last rode it.

Back then, it was over-crowded. Hot in summer, cold in winter. Expensive, particularly for a kid earning a minimal salary at an entry-level position.

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I took the job because it was with a large corporation. I thought it might lead to something better. I was working, so I quit the job I had — whatever it was — and two weeks later, on the appointed day, I showed up for work.

The guy who had offered me the job was gone. No one had heard of me, or the job. I had nothing in writing. No job. I wasn’t sure I would even be eligible for unemployment. I eventually qualified, but I had learned the most critical life lesson of all.

GET IT IN WRITING.

Whatever it is. If it’s not written, dated, and signed, it’s as good as the paper it isn’t written on. Or less.

QUITTING

Originally written for The Happy Quitter, published March 7, 2015. Today is my 68th birthday and quitting smoking was the best gift I ever gave myself. Time to talk about it. I’m surprised I’ve never written about it before now.


In my long and checkered professional career, I had many bosses. One of them had, in a former life, been addicted to heroin. It wasn’t a secret. We all knew. I had the feeling he was proud of having kicked drugs and was now the owner of a software development company. I asked him how he did it, how he got free of his addiction.

“You know,” he said, “It really wasn’t as hard as you might think. Mostly, I had to get away from the people, from other junkies and the whole world of drugs. After I stopped hanging out with those people, getting off drugs was pretty easy. It’s the culture that pulls you in, not so much the drugs.”

“I wish,” he continued, a touch of wistfulness in his voice, “it was as easy to kick cigarettes. When you hang out with junkies, you know it’s illegal. You sneak around. You are careful. But cigarettes? No problem. They’re legal. Grab a buddy and go for a smoke. It’s a social thing.

“You don’t hear heroin addicts saying to each other ‘Hey, anyone want to go out and shoot up?’ but you can stop by another smoker’s desk and say … ‘Hey, want to go have a butt?’

“I’ve had a much harder time quitting smoking than I had quitting heroin. Much harder,” he said, and reached for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket. I was a smoker myself, then. I had been trying to quit off and on for years. I’d quit, then I’d be somewhere – usually an office – where other smokers worked. I’d get sucked into it. It wasn’t the physical addiction which lured me back to a habit I understood was harmful to my health, disastrous to my budget (and getting more costly each day). And made my clothing and hair stink of stale smoke. It was the social connection that got me. Hanging out with other smokers. The rhythm of smoking. I’d write, then take a break, grab a smoke. It was part of my process.

I was never as heavy a smoker other people I knew. I lit many more cigarettes, than I smoked. But I enjoyed smoking. I liked the smell of fresh tobacco. On some level, I still do. I liked standing outside on a crisp night, watching my smoke curl up and away into the sky. I did a lot of my thinking on cigarette breaks. When I was writing, if I was stuck, I’d have a smoke. By the time I was halfway through it, I’d know what I was going to do and how I would do it.

Smoking-Burning-CigaretteIt took me years of quitting, backsliding, and quitting again before it finally “stuck.” Years before the smell of tobacco brought back memories without triggering an unbearable desire to smoke.

I am sure right now … after seven? eight? years since I quit for good that were I to smoke one cigarette, I’d be a smoker again. Instantly. It’s not because I’m physically addicted. After all these years of not smoking, I’m obviously not addicted to nicotine, if I ever was. Yet on some level, I will always be addicted to the habit of smoking.

It’s not that I don’t want a cigarette. I just don’t smoke.

FLATTENING THE LEARNING CURVE

Daily Prompt: I Have Confidence in Me – Are you good at what you do? What would you like to be better at?


Funny you should mention this. I was thinking, yesterday evening, that I’ve been writing for so many years … my entire life except for a few years before I knew which end of the pencil made marks … it has become like breathing. I just do it. I don’t plan projects, don’t struggle to say what I mean. Don’t get writer’s block. I can’t remember any time when I couldn’t write, though I have gone through periods when I didn’t want to write.

I blog because I’m going to write regardless and I need something to do with all those words. I love blogging. It’s the only writing I’ve done which isn’t a long-term project.

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“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” is my motto these days. For writing and other stuff. What I don’t write today will wait. Tomorrow is a new day, a fresh slate. I can choose to write what I want. No thousand pages of unfinished manuscript is lurking on my desk while a printing deadline glows menacingly in the background.

Photography is a bit different. Pure pleasure. I’ve been an enthusiastic amateur photographer since I was in my early 20s. Although I earned a few bucks taking pictures here and there over the years, calling myself a professional photographer would be a considerable stretch. I gave it a brief try and hated it. I love taking pictures, but when there was a client in the mix, it stopped being unfettered fun and became work. Which, as we all know, is the original four-letter word. Just ask Maynard G. Krebs.

What else would I like to be good at? I’d like to get better at casting magic spells. I need more and better magic in my life. Otherwise? I’ll do my best to keep my existing skills sharp. Everything else? Nah. I’m retired.

RUINED FOR THE REAL WORLD

I had been looking for a job that would let me flex my hours so Garry and I could spend time together. It was difficult. He worked terribly long hours, gone before the sun came up and not home until it was dark again. Ironic. Most people think reporters work “a few minutes a day” because that’s all they see on the news. Not true.

To get those few minutes of finished news on the air, they drag themselves through every kind of weather — blizzards, hurricanes, bitter cold, unbearable heat — and endless traffic, from one end of the state to another. They are often on the scene of the worst imaginable horrors before the first responders arrive.

And they have to look good while doing it. Without a break for lunch or even a bathroom. Someone once commented it’s like being in the army, just without the uniform.

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His days off were Wednesday and Thursday. That meant we had barely a few minutes after work to meet and greet each other. Everything else waited until vacation. By which time Garry was exhausted and needed two weeks of sleep to recuperate so he could go back to work again.

The good part of his job? He loved it. I think everyone in the news business is an adrenaline junkie. The thrill of getting the scoop, tracking down the story, coming up with a different angle on something every other station is also doing and sometimes, finding new information to crack open a case. Garry loved his work. He didn’t love every single moment of it, but he loved most of it, loved knowing he could make a difference, shine a light into a dark corner and fix something that had been broken.

When I married him, I married his work. No whining about him missing all the family events, never being around to help with the housework or the shopping. I knew from the get-go I’d be keeping his dinner warm for whenever he got home. That was the deal we made.

One day, I got a call. A major corporation was looking for a technical writer to create documents for various computer programs aimed at end-users. Entry-level stuff. For me, this was a piece of cake — with icing.

I went to the interview. Bad part? It was a part-time job, paying a retainer. I would be paid for 20 hours a week at $25 an hour, which was less than my usual rate. But it was a retainer. Freelancers know there’s nothing better than a retainer. I might work all 20 hours, or no hours. I would not be required to go into the office. Ever. I’d work from home or wherever I and my computer might be, including the back porch of the house on the Vineyard.

Although it was half the money I’d been earning, I could take free-lance gigs to make up the gap.

I took the job and never looked back. When I accepted it, I figured I’d be working most of the 20 hours. It turned out there wasn’t any work. Or almost none. Weeks and months went by. I would call to find out if maybe they’d forgotten me. Didn’t they want me to do something? No, everything is fine, they said. No problem. We’ll call you. Once in long while, they did call and for a few days, I worked. It was almost a relief. Even though it was writing I could do in my sleep.

For more than four years, I got a regular paycheck for which I did nothing much. I did other free-lance stuff here and there. I had to bring a laptop with me when I went on vacation, just in case. It was the dream job. I was getting paid and didn’t have to work.

One day, I picked up the Boston Globe and discovered the division for which I worked was being disbanded. Apparently someone noticed that no one in the department actually worked. So I called my boss, Anita.

“Anita,” I said. “I was reading the Globe this morning. Does this mean I have to look for a new job?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “We all do. But you’ve got three or four months, so you should be fine.” I couldn’t believe it. They were taking away the best job in the world. I was going to have to go to work, show up at an office. Stay there all day. What a horrible thought!

I went job hunting and found what would turn out to the best real job I ever had. The best colleagues and the greatest boss. But it was work. I had to think (a lot), learn (like getting a masters in advanced object linking in a couple of weeks), synthesize, design documents, write them. Back to meeting deadlines. Although my extended paid vacation had not lessened my skills. I was as good as ever, but never again would I feel comfortable in a 9 to 5 job.

Merely having to be in one place all those hours made me itchy. I got the job done — and done well — but I was ruined. No regular job felt right. Not until retirement would I find myself as happy as I had been during my retainer years.

GETTING THE FORK FROM WORDPRESS

DAILY PROMPT:  Morton’s Fork

If you had to choose between being able to write a blog (but not read others’) and being able to read others’ blogs (but not write your own), which would you pick? Why?


I wish this were about Morton’s salt rather than the fork. I could get my head behind the salt, that cute round container and logo with the little girl and her umbrella.

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A no-brainer for any writer, I should think. I need to write. Because I’m a writer. If I could not write, something in me would die. What’s with the questions to which there’s no reasonable answer? These prompts have gone from uninspiring to depressing.

When asked “what are you,” I never say I’m a wife, mother, grandmother — or even a woman. I automatically answer “I’m a writer.” Because I am. Being a writer is embedded in my concept of “self-hood,” if I am not that, then I’m not sure what else I am. Writing was my profession, but I was a writer before I earned a salary doing it. I will always be a writer, and it has nothing to do with whether or not a sell my words … or even whether or not anyone else reads them. Whether or not I am still a professional writer is a different question.

Unlike other professions … probably this is true of all the creative arts … what you do is more than how you make a living. It’s the way you synthesize your world and experiences. It stays with you as long as you breathe, long after paychecks stop coming and often, even if the paychecks never start arriving. Writing is so deeply embedded in who I am that I cannot imagine not needing to write.  I think only death will stop me … and depending on how that works out, maybe not even then.

If there’s an afterlife, I’ll be writing and blogging about it. But not on WordPress. By then, I’m sure there will be a platform which actually wants its customers to succeed and won’t keep making it harder and harder to get the job done. But that’s another post for a different day.

Reading blogs is fun. Often inspirational and it lets me connect with other people … which has become an essential part of life. But there are other ways to connect — email, telephone, letters, etc. As for reading, as long as there are books, life goes on.

Writing can’t be replaced. Accept no substitute.

THE TEEPEE – I REMEMBER

Once upon a time, I built a teepee. I painted the door and filled it with things I loved. I made the poles, sanded each by hand, peeling the bark from the 16-foot saplings we had cut in our own woods.

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Then I wrote a book about building it, and about life, transformation, and other things, some funny, some sad, some just whatever. The manuscript for The 12-Foot Teepee took me about 7 months to write, about as much time to edit, then a few more months to design the cover and book. Getting it published, well … that’s another story.

This was my teepee.

It stood, through all seasons, for five years. Through snow and ice, drenching rain, hurricanes and hale, it stayed solidly anchored. This past summer, we realized the poles had rotted through. They could no longer support the canvas. And the canvas itself was mildewed and tears had appeared in various places. Its time was done. We took it down.

You can find the book on Amazon, both as a paperback and in Kindle format. It is The 12-Foot Teepee,  by Marilyn Armstrong.  My life has moved on considerably since then but writing it was a turning point in my life.

And for the years the teepee was mine, it was the one place in the world in which I always felt safe and at peace. I will always miss it. It was also the only space I’ve ever known which was entirely, completely, absolutely mine.


Oasis – A sanctuary is a place you can escape to, to catch your breath and remember who you are. Write about the place you go to when everything is a bit too much.

IF ONLY

For Posterity - My blog just went viral. My assignment? Write the post I’d like new readers to see and by which I’d like them to remember me. Write that post right now.


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Talk about a tall order. Golly gee whiz. You mean … like … right now, here, no prep, no thought. Write the post of posts, the one by which the blogging (and maybe literary) world will remember me. I’m not trying to be argumentative, but that’s like telling me to sit down and produce a best-selling book. Now, this minute.

Writing doesn’t work that way … and even if it did, I don’t work that way. Writing is a process. Idea or concept, followed by roughing out a draft. Wait a while, then come back, have another go at the draft. Maybe get someone else to read it.

Click publish. Will it be a hit? It’s a crap shoot. You may love it and think it’s the best piece I’ve ever written, but maybe no one else will like it. Or maybe I’ll think it’s mediocre, but you think it’s fantastic. Maybe I’ll read it tomorrow and the whole thing will give me a monumental headache. I’ll realize it’s a total piece of shit and delete it, too embarrassed to even keep it on file.

Art to order. Brilliance on demand.

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If only.

If only I could decide to write that best-seller, just sit down and do it. After which a publisher would agree, then promote, market, and publicize it. But of course, I’m still stuck on the “writing it” piece of the equation. Like today, now, this minute, I’m supposed to write the one post I’d like new readers to see and by which posterity will remember me. Just like that.

Does anyone know what, if anything, posterity will choose to remember? Because I sure don’t know. I’m not sure anyone will remember me at all, for any reason.

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What I know is each post I write is the best I can write on that day, in that moment. Maybe it will be a great little post. Maybe it will be popular and viewed by many people. Maybe no one will notice it at all and it will disappear. Probably, I won’t remember it either.

I’ll continue to do my best. And that will have to suffice.