Saturday, July 25, 2009

Breaking Through Silences

I'm cursed with a long memory that allows me to revisit unpleasant moments from long ago and get upset about them all over again.

The encounters that are most likely to come back and haunt me are those in which I have allowed myself to be rendered mute. That would seem almost counter-intuitive. Certainly, there are plenty of episodes in which I shot my mouth off and caused problems for myself, but even in those cases, my words kept the conversation moving toward a resolution, for better or for worse.

It's the times where I said nothing and walked away because I couldn't sort it out in my head fast enough that leave me with that indelible aftertaste of frustration. What lingers is that feeling, if only I could have gotten the words out and made the other person understand me, it would have had a better outcome.

One incident I remember: This was way back in my freshman year of college, at the Rathskellar (doesn't every college have a Rathskellar, and why is that?...). It was peak lunch hour and crowded. I saw a small table with four chairs -- three were empty and one woman was sitting by herself.

I approached the table and asked the standard question that people I'd grown up with and gone to high school with always asked: "Is somebody sitting here?" Or, to be more precise, "Somebody sittin' here?"

What the question meant was, "Is one or more other person(s) with you, just not in the immediate vicinity, who will return from getting food and be dismayed if they find that I am sitting in the chair that they had reserved for themselves? In other words, I need a place to sit; this chair looks empty, but I am inquiring of you as to whether this is the case? Will I be able to sit at this table and eat my lunch, or will my food get cold and probably spill onto the floor as I wander around trying to find another place to sit down?"

The answer I expected from the woman was either "My friend(s) will be back in a minute, sorry," or "No, have a seat." In other words, I was welcome, or I wasn't. I could have dealt with either one.

Instead, the woman looked at me and replied "Yes, somebody's sitting here." She wore a small smile when she said it.

I had absolutely no way to reply to that; I was utterly tongue-tied. Words were flying back and forth through my mind, of course:

Okay, are you trying to tell me I insulted you with my question, which sounded like I was implying that no human being ("somebody") is sitting at this table, when obviously you are?

Or are you answering my question the same way anybody in high school might, meaning yes, somebody (else) is coming back any second and therefore I can't have their chair? Is it three other somebodies who will need all the chairs, or just the somebody who would most likely be wanting to sit in the chair closest to me?

But the way she just answered with that one statement, and fixed her steady, small-smile gaze on me completely unnerved the unsophisticated 18-year-old me and conjured up all those high school moments of being told I wasn't welcome at the cool kids' table. I stared back at her for what seemed like a really long time, hoping she might clarify the statement (of course she didn't), or that I would figure out a good answer (I didn't), and then just silently turned away and went somewhere else. I don't remember now whether I did find another seat somewhere or stood over the trash receptacle and wolfed my lunch, or maybe took it outside. All I remember is the woman, the look on her face, what she said, and what I didn't say.

Nowadays, happily, I'd have handled it much differently. First, I'd have asked "Is there a space for me to sit here?" or something more specific and less Long Island than "Somebody sittin' here?" College was where I began to meet people who weren't from my lower middle-class hometown, who were better-spoken and better-mannered.

And even if I'd kept the same opening and gotten that "Yes, somebody's sitting here" answer, I'd have the words to break through: "Well, you certainly are sitting here. What's your name? I'm Volly," with an offered handshake as my Philly Cheesesteak slid gracefully off the tray and onto the floor, inducing guilt and forcing her to offer me a seat at her table.

I'd also have come up with something like "It sure is crowded here," or some other standard conversational opener. And even if she'd flat-out rebuffed me, that would have been okay too. Especially if we were here in the South. I could have told her to "have a blessed day" before walking off.

But those moments when someone else's words blocked my own are the ones that fill me with a lot of anger -- always toward myself, of course. Anger that I didn't do my job and come to my own defense, whatever the circumstances. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, July 23, 2009

It's Almost Funny

On another online venue, I posted a cryptic little two-liner about "certain people" who treat others badly. So happens (as it often does) that I was referring to my boss, The Scorpion Queen. There was no reason to be specific, and since it is a semi-private social networking site, I deliberately refrained from "naming names" or providing more detail. My reference was general enough that many others reading it could relate. Many did. The responses varied from "me too" to "having a bad day, are we?" to "karma will kick their butts sooner or later," etc.

Well, some people are awfully paranoid. One of those is my ex. After months of blessed silence from the lad, I started getting snarky online posts and e-mails from him. After a bit of bewildered back-and-forth on a range of topics, Doug finally got to the point of his strange demeanor. He had read my post on the social networking site and instantly jumped to the conclusion that I was referring to him.

Several responses came to mind, but maybe the St. John's Wort has been doing me more good than I realized. I managed to remain friendly and matter-of-fact, and assured him that the wellspring of that post was my working environment, and that he could expect plenty more in that vein, due to an overwhelming need to vent as an alternative to doing something that might land me on the six o'clock news.

I have often been struck by the bizarre similarities between my ex-husband and my late mother. One of those parallels was a tendency to assume that any cryptic thing I might write was a reference to them. Mom read one of my youthful short stories (without my permission) and lambasted me for describing her as "plump and matronly." There was no convincing her that I had Sada Thompson in mind when I wrote it. And now, 32 years later, here's Doug, channeling Mom.

And betraying his guilty conscience in the bargain... Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Other Victims of the Right-wing Hate Machine

This report from the Southern Poverty Law Center was the last thing I read before going to bed late last night, and it popped out at me first thing this morning.

One excerpt in particular struck me:

April 4, 2009
Three Pittsburgh police officers — Paul Sciullo III, Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly — are fatally shot and a fourth, Timothy McManaway, is wounded after responding to a domestic dispute at the home of Richard Andrew Poplawski, who had posted his racist and anti-Semitic views on white supremacist websites. In one post, Poplawski talks about wanting a white supremacist tattoo. He also reportedly tells a friend that America is controlled by a cabal of Jews, that U.S. troops may soon be directed against American citizens, and that he fears a ban on guns was coming. Poplawski later allegedly tells investigators that he fired extra bullets into the bodies of two of the officers "just to make sure they were dead" and says he "thought I got that one, too" when told that the fourth officer survived. More law enforcement officers are killed during the incident than in any other single act of violence by a domestic political extremist since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Here's the thing: I frequent a local message forum. It's a mixed bag of media veterans, minor celebrities, entrepreneurs, low-level politicians, stay-at-home moms, retired people, and just regular workin' folk.

Oh, and law enforcement. Mustn't forget the LEO's. There are at least four in our group, perhaps two to three more who don't post as frequently. We have a moderator for all LE-related topics; one who's sort of a philosopher and a brilliant writer; and then, well, we've got two other guys.

The moderator and the writer, I've met. Both relatively young, both married (neither for the first time); both have children. One actually has a child less than a year old. Their genuine dedication to their families and their jobs, and by extension, to the rest of us, can't be doubted. I have a lot of respect for both of them. Overall, their political leanings are conservative. I don't think it's possible to be effective in law enforcement unless you've got that mindset: The rules are made to be followed, if the law isn't respected all you get is anarchy, you can't be soft on crime, etc. etc.

However, the thing I sense about the moderator and the writer is their essential humanity and kindness. Neither of these guys is a bully. They may be cynics, but they have enough broad experience in the world to understand that "bad guys" come in all stripes and a measure of impartiality includes the notion that not even someone you think of as "respectable" is immune to sliding toward the dark side, under the right circumstances.

Now the other two guys, the ones I haven't met, are both prolific posters. I realize that the forum is an outlet of sorts. The writer has a better one: He actually gets paid to submit columns (under a pseudonym) to the newspaper, and he's earned accolades just in the year he's been doing it. We feel like he's "ours" and we're proud of him. But these other two specialize only in snarky one-liners and opinions that often come very close to hate speech.

This isn't a big city, so every one of these guys has worked the area I call home. What strikes me is, the latter two most assuredly harbor a lot of the "us vs. them" mindset that trickles down from the alleged minds of Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly - the idea that only whites really have it together; that minorities are more prone to drug use and crime; that we need a strong military-style government in charge and it should be based on very conservative Christian values.

What inspired me to even write this was a clip someone posted featuring Glenn Beck speaking to Ron Paul about the whole "one world government/Federal Reserve at the center of everything/they're taking over and no one is doing anything about it" trip. And just as predictable as clockwork, one of our one-line LE pundits chimes in with something along the lines of "Yes I know the country's going to hell in a handbasket, but what do you want us to do about it?"

This guy, based on his huge number of posts, clearly believes that white male Republicans who listen to Limbaugh, Beck and O'Reilly are the key to preserving the status quo, and that everybody else (liberals, feminists and non-whites who don't know their place) are determinedly chipping away at it.

Looking more closely at his posted response, the two components that leap out at me are "us" and "do about it."

That brought me back to the excerpt that I started this with. Richard Poplawski is a classic right-wing extremist wingnut who also sees the world in terms of "us vs. them" and "do something about it."

And "do something," he did. As a result, three police officers are dead and one wounded. The guy with the gun was not "from the projects." He did not match the profile of any of the usual suspects that my LE acquaintances grumble about on a regular basis. He was, in fact, if you want to be kind about it, a white working stiff upholding his second-amendment rights. Just like so many of those who pepper the online paper here in town with their dubious wisdom. So many of them see white conservatives as working hand in hand with law enforcement against a common "enemy." "If you're not for us, you're against us," is the underlying theme.

So who came for Richard Poplawski's guns? Surprise! It wasn't President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Rachel Maddow. It was three guys who, if inclined, would quite likely have been posting on our forum about how "guvmint" is looking to unleash the anarchists and dismantle the beloved traditional hierarchies that made this country great.

And I wonder if the LE guys who post anonymously with such swagger are considering any of this. If they see the glaring logical fallacy in their views.

The side they so ardently support could one day be the death of them. Literally.
. Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, July 12, 2009

TV - Just Not Getting It

I watched plenty of TV when I was a kid, and beyond. Saturday morning cartoons (Space Ghost, Wacky Races, Justice League, Looney Tunes); Dark Shadows every afternoon from July of 1968 until the last stake was driven home in early 1971. Lassie, The Adventures of Superman; Batman, and all the way to All in the Family, M*A*S*H, 60 Minutes, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, American Idol, and Two and a Half Men. Up until about 3 years ago I also paid a fair amount of attention to TLC and the Discovery Channel, enlightening myself with such fare as Clean Sweep, What Not to Wear, and various medical tabloid goodies about the morbidly obese and those disfigured by tumors. Hey, it's dumb, but it isn't porn, and it never addicted me to the point of my contemplating the purchase of a DVR. Even as a child, TV took second place to books.

Books are still my first love. I often think of the many volumes that I traded, loaned and never got back, sold, and donated in the midst of numerous moves between Long Island, Queens, and the Sun Belt. If I'd hung onto all of those, I'd probably need a bigger house. A recent acquisition of hand-me-down furniture freed up a significant amount of bookshelf space so that I no longer have to create double layers to accommodate all my reading material. That feels nice. My book collecting has decreased somewhat in recent years, mainly due to budgetary constraints. Still, now and then I go on a book binge and Ebay is wonderfully convenient for such purposes. E-books are also starting to pile up on my hard drive. My to-read list includes Brave New World, House of the Seven Gables, Lair of the White Worm, The Turn of the Screw, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Wind in the Willows, Walden, Oliver Twist, and Freakonomics. Incidentally, is a great resource for classics as well as offbeat or obscure titles, especially self-help.

This 70/30 ratio of books to TV began to change about 10 years ago when I found more interesting things on the Internet. I suspect that timeframe for online exploration is true for most people reading this, though some may have started a bit later. I did Prodigy and AOL in the early- to mid-1990s, then got caught up in fanfiction (writing and reading -- unbelievably time-consuming), and that led to some good friendships that started out as virtual and gradually transitioned to real-life. Since moving to my present location, the local message forum, blogging and Facebook have added even more hours to my surfing day, not to mention my compulsive trawling of major news sites.

And a girl's got have tunes, after all, so Rhapsody, Pandora and a wicked set of speakers contribute to the growing amount of time spent in this one little room, occasionally looking out the window and getting up to eat, work, sleep and other less fascinating pastimes.

So now the mix has shifted dramatically: 70% internet, 25% books, 5% TV (including my twice-monthly DVD offering from Netflix). My husband frequently glances into this room and remarks "I don't know how you do it," referring to the amount of time I spend online.

He, on the other hand, has no interest in books, and less than zero interest in the computer, but cannot live without TV. He knows every major network news anchor and can name the entire cast of Desperate Housewives and the storyline of Ugly Betty. He suffers through Two and a Half Men because I like it, but frequently remarks that he's "getting burned out on it." He has a small number of movies he can watch over and over (Air Force One, US Marshalls, Monster-in-Law, The First Wives Club, Sling Blade, and Sweet Home Alabama, to name a few. He's also trying to get into Harry Potter but doesn't want to admit it to me). But one of his other favorite things to watch for hours on end is those Time-Life infomercials advertising vast collections of oldies from the '50s, '60s and '70s. And yes, they do go on for at least an hour. I hear the little 5-second snippets of familiar tunes and it tells me he's at it again. On the rare occasion when I wander into the room while he's watching, he'll say "Wow, 9 CD's, all those songs. A hundred and fifty-eight hits for $149.99. That's really a pretty good deal! Only 99 cents per song." And I'll say uh-huh, and we'll both know that unless we hit the lottery or something, the chances are slim indeed that we'll ever plonk down a credit card and order all that music. We've got plenty of CD's, by the way. But something about having ALL those songs in one place just captures Carl's imagination every time.

So I'm mystified that he can sit for such a long time (broken up by a Marlboro break out on the back deck) watching elaborately produced commercials, the same movies again and again, and prime-time fluff. I'm especially baffled by the allure of the tube, because on the increasingly rare occasions that I sit down and start flipping the remote, most of what I see is total crap. My ability to sit through most shows has long since departed. There's certainly plenty of rubbish online, no question, but the selection process is so different.

And yet, I don't walk up behind the sofa where Carl is sitting and say "I don't know how you do it." Because I used to do it too.

A LONG time ago. Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Swim Caps: A Short Story

In the bland little suburb where I grew up, the planners had seen fit to install Olympic-sized swimming pools every 20 blocks or so. As in many such places, they also saw fit to compose a broadsheet's worth of rules for proper conduct. None of them made any sense. One was "No suntan lotions or oils in the water." In today's sunscreen-obsessed culture, that one certainly wouldn't go over very well; I doubt it did even back in the mid-1960s. The lifeguards could be shits when they wanted to be, but most of the time, as long as they had other lifeguards to flirt with, they didn't much care what you did once you got past the Gatekeeper, who checked to see that your pool tag was current and listed in the master database, and that you had an actual swimsuit on (she made you strip off your outer clothing so she could check). She, too, was a shit, but she had no one to flirt with, you see.

One of the rules everyone remembers was (and I am quoting accurately here): "All females must wear swim caps while in the water."

That was fine, up until about 1969 or so. Then, of course, the entire world turned upside down and "our boys" started growing their hair long, like "those hippies."

Immediately, a controversy ensued. If girls (even with very short hair) had to wear swim caps in the water, then long-haired guys should have to, as well. The purpose of the rule was to prevent long strands of hair from clogging the filters.

I'm sure the Pillars of the Community would have really preferred simply to ban those dope-smokin' war-protestin' hippieboys from even entering the pool enclosure, but that was not to be. In the spirit of fairness, the rule was amended to read "All persons with hair over 3" in length must wear a swim cap while in the water."

I heard tell of one young man who chose to comply with this rule, but he disappeared the next day and was never seen again.

By 1975 or so, there was no longer any swim cap rule at our local pools.

And the persons rejoiced.
Click Here to Read More..

Friday, July 10, 2009


I can't possibly be the only one who engages in light fantasizing while listening to the NPR interview show Fresh Air.

Drew Barrymore was on today (a rerun from April) and I found myself silently responding to some of Terry Gross's questions as though they were directed at me.

I think the best thing about Terry's interview style is the open-endedness of her questions. She invites the interviewee to ramble wherever their mind wishes to go, and that results in some thought-provoking answers.

In the course of my own mental wanderings, I sometimes answer a question and discover some interesting new things about myself.

Today, I found myself describing my father, and how my upbringing was influenced by his worldview.

He lived to be 75 and would have celebrated his 93rd birthday on July 25th.

I've been aware, for a long time, that he desperately wished for me to grow up utterly protected and sheltered from all of life's realities, especially money and sex. To a degree, it worked, because I didn't leave home until age 22, and that somewhat naive, suburban part of me still lives on rather too strongly.

But today I thought about him a little more and came to some new conclusions.

To sum up, everything that made my father the least bit edgy, and brought some depth to his biography, he steadfastly disavowed. He was ashamed of ALL of it. This was a man who never broke a law in his life (except for one DUI when he was 60). He thought he was deeply unworthy, and wanted everything in my life to reflect some idealized opposite of the way he saw his life.

He rejected:
  • being Jewish
  • being the 1st generation of his family born in the US
  • growing up on the streets of Brooklyn
  • having a stepmother and some half-siblings
  • dropping out of high school and going out on the road to make his fortune as a musician
  • traveling through Europe with the Army band
  • working for a company that distributed records to jukeboxes
To me, these sound like elements of a pretty decent novel. But my father either didn't want to discuss certain aspects of his life, or he would simply dismiss them, with a grimace and a wave of his hand, as being one of the many things that he thought made him inferior. And any time I showed signs of resembling him in any way (such as having problems with math), he would get downright frantic. Any time I expressed interest in having my life go a different way than what he had orchestrated (wanting to live in Manhattan, for example), the reaction was similar. I was dismissed as a fool, who didn't "understand what the world was like."

I've seen similar characteristics of others from his generation. That sense of shame; the resorting to silence. His was, I think, the secret-keepinest bunch of people who ever populated the modern age. Put up, shut up, ignore it and it'll hopefully go away. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

No Identity Issues Here

I just received an e-mail from someone asking if I'm the same Volly who has a Christian book site.


No -- I use this name only on this blog, and as a commenter on others. That's it. I do have a gallery of pseudonyms on LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook (actually, I use my real name there), Twitter and a local message forum, not to mention Yahoo, Google, Hotmail and AT&T e-mail. All different, and rarely overlapping.

I tested it, though -- typed "Volly blog" into the Google search engine, and the "real me" didn't appear until page 6, with my Blogger profile.

That's the name, and I try not to wear it out... Click Here to Read More..


Somewhere in my travels through the Googleverse, I discovered

If you're not familiar, check it out. Developers and computer non-geeks alike can benefit from its wide range of articles. Everything from the most in-demand tech careers to the best way to format an Excel spreadsheet to new Firefox add-ons to tips for dealing with clueless IT department managers, and beyond. It has downloadable .pdf's, the best of which is the regular "10 things" feature.

If you use a computer (and if you've got a blog...) this site will help you -- probably within the next week. Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ranting Again

Not long ago, I got all ranty about commonly misused words and phrases, and it felt good. So I've found another target.

A bunch of people form a group with a common goal. Do they:

a. Ban together,
b. Band together?

The answer is b. This is pretty straightforward. They're like a "band" of brothers, or if you prefer graphic imagery, they are held together cohesively, as though with a rubber band.


The problem starts when the past tense rears its ugly head. Then people get all confused and start saying "We banned together to get a stop sign put up on the corner."

Um, no....

You banded together.

I think the mix-up comes from two possible sources.

First, remember when you were a little kid and you excitedly told your mother what you heard from some other little kid, about an accident at the pool? C'mon, you remember the conversation. You told Mom "Some kid drownded at the pool."

Everybody says "drownded" the first time. And everybody gets corrected - the present tense is drown, and the past tense is drowned. So deep in our subconscious, we retain the "lesson" that one never uses a word that ends in "nded." Unless it's the word ended, which still (oh, go on, admit it, you'll feel better) makes you slightly nervous.

Another unacknowledged factor that leads to the misuse of band and banded is the context. You and that bunch of people are getting together to -- what? Okay, maybe you want that stop sign put in. Maybe you're circulating a petition to end the war. But in at least fifty percent of the cases where people band together, they are working to ban something or cajole the government into having something banned.

"We banded together and the City Council banned smoking in the park."


Maybe we should forget about banding together and just gang up on the local politicos.

Probably get faster results that way... Click Here to Read More..

Friday, July 03, 2009


It's been about 16 years since my last massage. I don't know why, just as I don't know why it took me so long to hit the gym and the riverwalk. But there it is. Time slips by, and you're left with a bad case of "WTF?"

Evidently, my body was quite unused to being used; shortly after my first two workouts, things started knotting up badly. If it wasn't my lower back and right hip complaining, it was my neck, right shoulder and right arm, suddenly taking major exception to my days spent mostly on the computer with mouse in hand. I persevered two more times at the gym, but couldn't get beyond one mile on the treadmill and feared an unexpected twinge that might cause me to fall or stumble and embarrass myself. Wednesday I skipped a night, and yesterday I asked my doctor to recommend a massage therapist. I got an appointment for mid-morning, which meant I got to sleep in a little.

It was nice having today off; the timing couldn't have been better. A 30-minute massage was within my means (this week). The process was uncomplicated, and I'm so glad I did it. When I got out of there, I felt floaty, but noticed that my driving reflexes were just as good as ever, if not better.

The therapist said it took at least half the session to work through the surface tension in my shoulders. She strongly recommended coming back for at least one 1-hour session, or weekly half-hour sessions. I can't do that just now, but will certainly not let another 16 years go by before the next one. I'm hoping to be able to get in at least one 30-minute session per month going forward.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law Yolanda has been volunteering as a test case in the healing touch method. She's just as much of a skeptic as I am, but has been fairly impressed with the results. Before she even told me about what she's been doing, I noticed a distinct difference in her speech over the phone. Typically, her speech is rambling, scattered and disorganized, and it's sometimes a chore to converse with her. She will repeat the same idea several times in a row, attempting to summon just the right words. There are long gaps between words and sentences, as though she goes away for awhile, making it necessary to wait. If you cut in, she "loses her place" and starts over. She's suffered at least one small stroke. But this afternoon, she sounded very present, with a cohesiveness I hadn't heard from her in awhile. I think the healing touch therapy is beneficial to her, and for one simple reason, having nothing to do with chakras, vibrations or any other kind of woo-woo. It's the fact that she is in a room with one person, getting their undivided attention and interest. She's had a few failed relationships; she's been alone for awhile and tends to get her relationship needs met by spending her time with couples. She often complains about being the third wheel. So it must be nice to experience caring touch and a listening ear. I have no doubt that alternative therapies work, for this reason. And as long as it doesn't cause the user to part with ridiculous amounts of money that enrich the "therapist," or to get drawn into a cult or isolated from their normal life, it can only help. It's a stressful world out there. Trying to tough it out alone doesn't generally accomplish much.

Note: Just in case anyone wonders about the title of this post, it is a direct quote from an enterprising gentleman who greeted my son and me at the entrance to a NYC subway back in the summer of 2000, when we lived there. Good price, too: "Ten dolla." Click Here to Read More..