I was raised in the shoe family of Januzzi's Shoes. The ditty on the radio in the 80's went something like this: "All over the street, to happy feet. Get your shoozies at Januzzi's."

For some, they put on their writer's hat. For me, I wear my writer's shoes.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Revenge at the Hair Salon

Where is revenge best served, when it involves your mother, and she has dementia?

At the hair salon.

For years, my mother visited the beauty salon in Amherst to “get her hair done.”  Occasionally, she even toted five kids when tired of giving the home perm or snip of the bangs.

Mom, like every woman, had always been concerned about her hair. She hadn’t inherited the long, flowing black locks of many Italian beauties. Her hair was brown, I think.  Her strands were thin and straight, I think.  She pursued salon treatments and home solutions so often, I don’t have an exact recollection of her official hair color and style.

Many times, she descended to the bathroom in the basement, where wafts of coloring dye and perm solution rose up from the steps.  She appeared hours later, her hair sporting a color different or shape from when she had descended.

If Mom arrived home from the salon, and one of us gave her a compliment, she was quick to note, “Oh, the curls are too tight.” Or, “Its too dark a shade of brown.”  If the weather was rainy, Mom covered her head in a black or red or gray nylon scarf and asked my father to drop her at the door.  Dad complained, but always obliged.

When I hear, “Oh, my hair,” I can still conjure up Mom’s voice in my head.

Hair was a consistent topic of conversation in our household, in particular when there were four girls fighting over the bathroom mirror.  In our second family home, the kid’s bath was strategically designed for two mirrors, hence cutting in half the time the bathroom would be occupied by a girl. The intent was solid. The strategy failed.  However, my mother did succeed in keeping us out of her bathroom and away from her mirror.

Mom’s hair gradually turned towards lighter shades of gray, interspersed with threads of white.  When dementia finally took charge of her mind, she no longer took charge of her hair. Days went by before she washed her hair. Or, her hair remained matted in place with Adorn hairspray, which I thought had no longer been manufactured, but perhaps my father had found a stash on the back shelves of Drug Mart.

Mom, in her dementia, still makes comments about hair. Only now, they are directed at my coif and me. Mom’s statements are usually derisive, but she is only returning the favor of oh so long ago, when one of her children taunted about her changing hair color and style to match the times and her moods.

In Mom’s care home, a wonderful woman named Carol arrives twice weekly, to wash, cut, color, curl the thinning, fading hair of the residents, mostly women.  However, Carol’s challenge is somewhat different than her former days as a stylist. Her clients now abhor the water.  When once, women might have tilted their hair and sighed at the rush of warm water running through their scalps, now these residents fear water, as a baby might, forgetful, or unknowing of its power to cleanse and heal.

Once a month, I ask caregivers to ensure Mom “gets her hair done.”  I usually call in my request on a Monday or Tuesday, after visiting with Mom on a Sunday and noting her needs.  Last Sunday, I was out of town. So, I visited with Mom on Tuesday, and asked for the favor.  The caregiver on duty said Carol would fit Mom in that day.

Mom and I decided to stroll the corridors and check out what was happening in the community room. We came upon Carol waiting outside of her salon with her list of appointments.  She suggested taking Mom then.  Heavy sigh.  I had hoped to skip that portion of my visit with full knowledge of Mom’s distaste for the exercise she once considered a luxury.

I directed Mom into the salon chair with assistance from another staff member.  When we attempted to release the chair back, Mom’s shrieking began. 

“No, don’t do that to me!”

“Its Ok, Mom, just hold my hand.”  But she yanked her hand away from mine.

“Now, just wait a minute,” she kept screaming. 

At once, caregivers from down the hall came running to the salon.  “I knew it was our Jeanie Beanie,” a few of them noted, using one of her many nicknames given to her lovingly.

I sat back as caregiver after staff member encouraged Mom to lean back in the chair.

Mom repeatedly shifted from happy to frustrated state, calling out, “No. You’re not going to the do that to me.” And pointed her finger, her mighty, mighty index finger at – me. Yes, this was once again my fault.

Mom yelled like a little child with water dripping down her eyes, as if Johnson’s Baby Shampoo had never invented the slogan, No more tears. 

Carol stood in the background. “I’m sure happy you’re here today, she usually gets mad at me.”

And I was thinking, This is the last place I want to be.

Carol and I eventually gave up on the notion of running water through Mom’s hair. Carol would have to perform her duties the old-fashioned way, by hand. We raised the chair back up and Mom appeared content.

I reached out to hold her hand. “Well, Mom, this is revenge for when you scrubbed our scalp and held our heads over the stationary sink, you know, pouring hot water from the measuring cup.” 

Plus, I always thought Mom had over-applied Tame conditioner to my hair, but I left the past in the past.

Mom began to laugh, a high-pitched laugh and the remaining staff and caregivers moved on. Soon, H., another resident came along. H. loved Etta James. Carol and I both encouraged H. to sing At Last, which in turn, motivated Mom to sing.

We all began listening to a little Frank Sinatra, Carol amazed by how his voice, the words calmed Mom. 

Mom sat patient, while the stylist and I had frank discussions around music and how more of it should be brought into the lives of the residents. She listened along, adding her two cents. “That’s right.” Or “How bout that?” 

Mom belted out a few phrases, always completing the last lines of the song. I glanced away from Carol and back to Mom, imagining her as a thirty-year-old Italian beauty, dancing in Cedar Point’s Grand Ballroom, waiting to meet a man while Tommy Dorsey’s band played.

Carol put the finishing touches on Mom’s hair using a little aerosol hairspray - for old times sake.  Mom squealed again and grabbed a towel to hold over her eyes, smashing the front portion of her styled locks.

The activities director offered to take a photo but Mom was restless as my dog when it came to pictures. She never liked having her photo taken.

“Oh, what are you doing with that damn thing,” she stated, grabbing at my smartphone.

“Remembering how beautiful you are,” I said, smiling.

She pushed me aside and walked on.

Ah, Mom could still exact revenge over me, any day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Are You Weary of the Query?

Questions and Lessons from the Land of the Query

There comes a time in your writing life when its time to publish, to put your novel’s package on paper. Think branding. Like Tide.

It was never enough to write a book to sell. Now you have to sell the book you wrote. You declined work, abstained from lunch, recommitted to caffeine. You discarded thoughts of becoming the next Cheryl Sandberg or Strayed.

You wrote the shitty first draft, and shitty seconds and thirds, because your concept morphed over time. Think Frankenstein. Or Play dough.

You chased family from the house by steeping lapsang souchong tea, which they claimed smelled like a tire fire. You closed the door instead. You made practice runs five, six, seven times, to show and not tell.

Now, you’re tired, and the biggest hurdle lies ahead.

You ask friends in the writing world and they advise to query an agent. Publishers are busy. You’re competing with bloggers who want a book in PRINT and celebrities who have celebrity platforms. You connect instead through an agent. And with DSL speed, you can disseminate queries with ease.

You learn it’s not enough to write a well-developed query, a succinct synopsis, a comprehensive outline, a long biography, and a short one. But your biography should include your author platform, which should include your Facebook, Twitter, and social media presence, which should include blogs you write and follow, and websites that relate to your platform. The circular logic makes you want to give in.

In your platform, you document how you have sold your soul, and how much is left for sale. The platform proves a) you are qualified to write this book because you already did, b) you will present well and not lapse into Pig Latin while giving a talk and c) you have people, other than your mother and mothers-in-law, who will buy your book and recommend it. Think influential, powerful, media. You’ve drunk bourbon with an early morning reporter. She counts. 

You evaluate Facebook friends, email contacts and Twitter followers as potential promoters for your book. But as you analyze the list, you find five names out of 327 that might have influence and wonder why you are friends with the other 322. You think of time saved no longer communicating with less influential types. 

When you have categorized life events into short biography, or long, you follow Twitter, Facebook and other social media for agent announcements and query contests. You follow agents who post using #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), so you read up on hashtags. The second, you submit your 140-character pitch accepted only during 9 – 5 Central Time, at 7 a.m., EST. You decline to bid for an agent with proceeds going to a non-profit. You would like money dedicated to your interests, which feeds your platform, which surely the agent should understand.

Everything you say and do, including distinguishing yourself as a daily flosser, becomes your platform.

But it’s not enough to keep up with revisions, work in your field, teach writing, write about writing or generate blog posts which feed the monster of the platform. Now, you follow agents on Twitter, to learn what you already know. Make it shine. Make the first sentence intriguing. Work harder, faster, better. You should be at work, not on Twitter.

You begin querying. You discover agents ask for queries in different formats, in particular for online submissions. Place title + genre in subject line. Wait, what is your genre? Romance + Women’s + Book Club Fiction? Place title + word count in subject line. Place last name of your grandmother’s first boyfriend in subject line.

You research what to submit. Query letter only. Query letter and synopsis. Query letter and three chapters and short bio in body of email. Query letter plus synopsis plus first twenty pages, but send as attachment, or send as attachment and double space first fifty pages.

You note response times. Four weeks. Only if it’s positive. Four to six weeks, but if you don’t hear back, send a reminder. When Northeasterners have dug themselves out from underneath the last winter storm. Opening Day. Whichever comes first.

The online process is so different from printing and mailing a letter, where you review your package one final time because your eyes are old.

You hit the send button THEN spot an error. Or you have written, in a conclusion to one agent, what you said about another. Or the agent asked for the first thirty pages and you sent the first twenty. You accept the process is about attention to detail. But you used up your attention to detail in the novel. You have no reserves. Ask the dog, whom you forgot to feed in the morning.

But you admit, the process has made your book stronger. Your novel is told in alternating timelines and perspectives. You started with one POV, but after writing your query, you saw the logic of beginning with the second POV, and switched the order of the ENTIRE novel. 

You worked on the query and discovered what the heck the book is really about. Then you asked, do I like the theme? If not, which do I change, the novel or the query? And, do I have enough lapsang souchong?

Likewise, once you created a synopsis, you noted some events stood out. You revised the novel to reflect this. Or vice versa. You asked, how strong are the characters, how would they respond to the query process?

You miss waiting by the mailbox for rejection letters to line your office.  Instead, you receive a brief reply easily discarded by Gmail. Canned replies don’t offer the same incentive – you can’t burn them later.

You used to have brown-blonde hair, but you gave up on highlights. You hair is turning gray, in time for your photograph, though no one asked for a photo in your author platform.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What the heck if Ekphrasis 3-C?

Dear Poetry Friends,
The Ohio Poetry Association (OPA), in conjunction with the Cincinnati’s Pendleton Art Center’s Art in Action program, is presenting a FREE writing workshop.
10:30 AM - 3:00 PM
1310 Pendleton Street (just north of Hollywood Casino downtown)
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202
This FREE event is part of the Ohio Poetry Association’s Ekphrasis 3-C Series, with two other events in Cleveland and Columbus.
EKPHRASIS, in poetry, is the representation (literally a re-presentation) of a work of visual art in the medium of poetry. This event, rather than taking place in a museum, will be held in a century-old factory building which has been converted into working art studios, and currently houses over 100 studios used by more than 150 working artists.
The workshop will start with a short program and introduction to the PAC after which poets will be free to roam the building seeking inspiration from art that is on display throughout the building, and to visit many working studios to meet artists where they work. There will be at least 30 participating artists welcoming poets to see the process in action, and to absorb some of the amazing vitality and creativity that permeates the PAC. At 2:00 PM, poets will reconvene to share observations and work from their experience.
Ekphrasis 3-C: Cincinnati will be conducted by Bucky IgnatiusPresident of the Greater Cincinnati Writers League who also works as building manager of the PAC. Registration is recommended but not required. You can register by email to bucky.ignatius@gmail.com or by phone, 9AM to 1 PM Monday through Friday, 513-421-3339. 


Monday, March 09, 2015

Baby Doll

“Hello, baby,” Mom said, with a broad smile and wide eyes that had surprisingly become part of her character as of late.

The words, the phrasing, the inflection all reminded me of Mom’s sweet tone she used while cooing to the grandchildren when they were little.  How she would scoop them up into her arms, toned from years of ravioli rolling, and nestle them into the crook between her collarbone and cheek.

When our son Davis was born, Mom, or "Nanna," rocked him to sleep many afternoons, as he was somewhat of a fussy baby.  He eventually grew to sleep even in cars, when not behind the wheel. Observing Mom as I entered into her living space, I recalled how she used to call Davis, her little snuggler (Sorry, Davis).

Standing over her now, I realized, she wasn’t talking to me. She was speaking to the baby doll resting in her arms. A plastic baby doll. No, her behavior was not bizarre. In fact, it was quite normal.

“Put something meaningful in the person’s hands,” wrote the authors of You Say Goodbye, We Say Hello. TheMontesorri Method for Positive Dementia Care, Tom and Karen Brenner.

About a year ago, a companion caregiver who visited Mom regularly, and treated Mom like her own, hit upon the idea to gift Mom the doll.  The doll was wearing more clothes then than she had on now. But the doll’s frilly pink dress and blue eyes enticed Mom, who, every once in while even slept with the doll.

Occasionally, I brought in People magazines for us to read, because of their large print. But also, the cover sometimes featured a celebrity who had given birth, along with the new baby. “Oh, there, that one. Isn’t he something,” Mom said about Prince George.  

Recently, there had been a cover picturing Christine Aguilera, with her daughter Summer Rain. While Mom was not pleased with the name, she adored the baby wearing a tight pink hat and sporting startling blue eyes.

Sometimes, with my iPad and Mom seated at my side, I search Google Images, using the term baby. Mom is so taken by the plethora of images, she is overwhelmed and speechless.  She giggles and can’t seem to settle on which one was her favorite.

But, when I heard Mom say, “Hello, baby,” for a split second, I thought she was directing her hello at me.  Instead, she was swinging the baby doll back and forth, as she rocked in the “maternity rocker,” and peering into the doll’s eyes, saying, “Hello, baby.”

Often, when the baby doll is in her arms, other residents stop and ask, “Boy or girl?”  “Can I hold her?”  “What’s his or her name?”  They tower over Mom with jealousy and wistfulness.

Mom doesn’t typically respond, but I do. “It’s a girl.”  Or, “About three months.” Or "Would you like to hold her?"

“How lucky,” Mary Lou responds.  “Isn’t that something,” Big Jim says.

The doll didn’t come with tag stating her name. I’m not certain a name would have stuck. Her name is Baby Doll, and that works for Mom. Occasionally, Baby Doll has gone missing.  Meaning, one of the other residents has taken off with the doll.  Sometimes, the staff has to put out an APB for Mom’s doll.

Put something meaningful in a person’s hands, I harken back to. Sometimes its coffee, or a snack, which is how I learned to not complain about Mom’s eating, unless it’s the whole hunk of brie she once tried to consume at Christmas. Eating is a meaningful act.

In their stories, the authors included other meaningful items, such as baseballs, violins, trains, pipes and wrenches (for a former plumber). When Mom visits my house, I put a wooden spoon in her hand. She still loves to stir a good pot of sauce. And despite the lack of babies in our family (no rush, kids), she still loves good hugs. If no one else is around, the baby doll is a fair substitute as her little snuggler.

A mother never forgets how to love. And she never forgets how to love a baby, even when the baby is a forty-nine year old daughter resting on her shoulder, asking the big questions about life.

She will wrap her free hand around my cheek. “Well, there. Its there,” she'll respond, and hold up her baby doll.

You Say Goodbye, We Say Hello. The Montesorri Method for Positive Dementia Care, Tom and Karen Brenner.  Read more here….

Friday, February 20, 2015

What to Give - Easing the Transition of Care

So many factors determine the ease with which a loved one makes the transition into long-term care a successful one.  First, the health of the individual in question, mental and physical.  Second, making her surroundings comfortable, with familiar items flanking her left and right.  Third, the culture of the care home where the loved one is now residing. Finally, the effort family and friends put into making themselves and loved ones feel as if they now are simply part of a larger family.

This thought occurred to me, as a lesson learned over time. I have been managing my mother’s care since she transitioned into a care home in July, 2012. Mom went into the care home, a grieving, but not remembering wife, with little or no physical challenges, as she had already put cancer, G/I and thyroid challenges behind her. 

Mom entered her next place surrounded by the fuzzy green afghan she used to cover up with while napping on the crème couch at home, a body pillow for her security at night, something she could cuddle up to, and a baby doll, which she can still lavish her love upon when she needs. 

While the culture of her first care home was less than desirable – for where she was in her disease - I soon moved her where she settled in promptly because she could wander outside spontaneously, attend community center events, including watching How Green Was My Valley if she wanted, and be herself with no restrictions.

But it’s the final point I contemplated, when I entered her care home for Ash Wednesday services. I had called earlier to inquire about timing of the service and was told three-ish because who adheres to a schedule when time is all you have.

About fifteen residents were watching  a short film about Burma shave – “Dinah doesn’t / Treat him right / But if he’d / shave / Dyna-mite! / Burma-shave,” when I arrived. The pastor showed up at “three-ish” after braving snow and close to zero wind chill temperatures.

Pastor P. entered a room full of willing and not-so-willing because they kept forgetting participants, ready to share in the glory of the Lenten season.  He knew and greeted each resident by name, and for the most part, recalled the names of family members.  I glanced around, surprising myself by acknowledging the names of those residents as well.

We had formed our own sort of family at Mom’s care home.

It’s a blend of work-family life.  Work, because when loved ones arrive to visit, while it should be pleasureable, none of us have tricked ourselves into believing it will be all pleasure. There are many painful moments and pain is work.

Work because I sometimes spend more time conversing with other’s family members, swapping stories about their loved ones, as we are only the mouthpieces, the sieves through which the essence of our loves one’s life gets distilled.  Work because getting to know the staff, their families as they know mine is relationship-building, and relationships take effort and time.

Pastor P always delivers on-point, audience-specific sermons, and usually includes a focus on thankfulness. When he opens up for the floor for the residents to speak of their gratitude, I am heartened by the responses. A few mentions involve whatever the weather is producing outside, whether sun or wind or rain. But the underlying message is residents still are moved by what is happening outside of them. My mom occasionally mentions the wallpaper border, for which I doubt she is thankful for, but she can point to it, and make commentary on its presence. It’s her contribution.

Most of all, one resident will inevitably call out, “Each other.”

“That’s right,” Pastor P will agree and extend his long arms, and as if scooping us all into his arms. “We are family. We are all family here. We take care of each other.”

The employees care for our loved ones. Earlier, the activities director had shared with me a photo of Mom, a photo which I know took great pains to capture, because Mom is like my dog, she doesn’t like to have her picture taken, she doesn’t understand the purpose.  But the director did capture a photo worthy of going viral.

Residents and loved ones look out for each other. Many times, my greatest joy comes in observing the residents in how they treat each other, a touch on the arm, a pat on the back, and encouragement to walk down the hall, with no idea where they are going.  Many times, my simplest joy comes in watching other families and loved ones interact with Mom, or vice versa, my interacting with someone else’s Mom, as if I am somehow giving respite to the family who is not there, still connecting.

And families give back to the caregivers.  I have brought in Servatti cookies for Mom’s corridor, bought Chipotle lunch for the employees as a thank you and made the official family cookie, pizzelles, for the Sinatra impersonator party.  My mother does not get better care because I am bribing the staff. Instead, I am thanking them, and thank you’s go a long way in boosting the morale so employees can be at their best for all residents.

So, after a loved one has settled in, its time for families to do the same.  Fix yourself a cup of coffee, have a cookie (but not all). Watch a movie, sing along with the sing-a-longs.  Attend communion service. Play Outburst, alongside the residents. Ease into your place in the family of care.