Making Time to Write

sleepywriter

Writers are plagued with an array of hurdles that keep them from getting words on a page. Some struggle mightily with writer’s block. I am lucky in that this is a rare goblin in my life; I can generally write about anything. As long as I can find my way to the page. There is time management. This is a bête noire I know too well. It is a problem for women writers, especially. No one ever expected William Faulkner to step away from the typewriter to make dinner.

But in my life, the worst succubus of all is Procrastination.  It’s not what you think. I’m not dilly-dallying. Orputtering. Or loafing about. No, my day is chock full of things I’ve done. My to-do lists are checked. I am a woman of many irons and they are all in the fire. I am pulled in a dozen different directions, but on the whole I manage to accomplish most of what I set out to do in a day.

Except the writing. (And sometimes the laundry.)

Writing is supposed to be the most important thing in my life. It is my damnation, and my grace. I only spent the first 25 years of my life trying Not to Be a Writer, and writing all the while. I was going to be a ballerina! An equestrienne! An actress, a director, a broadcast journalist, a photojournalist, a filmmaker, a performance artist. Okay, maybe a poet. Dammit. Finally it doesn’t matter what you choose, sometimes you are simply chosen,

I have accepted this yoke, and I have made it my own. So why does writing come absolutely last in my list of priorities? Am I crazy?

One of my dearest friends is an architect. Every time he sits down to draw he suddenly has an acute need to organize his sock drawer. Sometimes we call each other on the phone and talk for an hour so as to slide ever closer to the looming deadline while not accomplishing a damn thing.

What I did today:

A lengthy and enjoyable half hour  on the phone with a good friend about a mutual project.

I had a granola bar for breakfast.

Read an essay online about a study in Europe that suggests that dogs don’t like their owners as much as we think they do. Wonder why every “expert” who conducts a study on dogs seems to know nothing about dogs and understands them even less. Make some notes for a follow up essay of my own.

Return a phone call from the Physiatry office to reschedule, yet again, my EMG test to have a look at my wonky ulnar nerve. Okay, April 6th then.

Check  on some items I’ve been watching on eBay.

Then a surprising phone call from a friend who just learned she’s being sued for $25,000 by a crazy woman. Did I know any attorneys? I said I’d do some asking and call her back.

Drove gently to the gas station to put fuel in the car, because Dear Husband left it with enough to go six miles.

Had a meeting at a firm about a copy-writing assignment for a brochure. The man who owns the firm is a friend and I told him about my Lenten project to write every day. He asked me if it wouldn’t be better to be writing for money, and I agreed it would, but confessed I was again so out of the habit of writing that I was desperate for anything to make it second nature again.

Took some notes about the brochure he needs and then got into a discussion about an officer-involved shooting that has some labyrinthian details unknown to the public. My ears perk up. These kinds of stories make my fingers itch. In a good way.

Gathering up my notes, I asked if he could recommend an attorney for my friend. He could.

Drove home because I’d forgotten the check I needed to deposit. Spent some time petting Snippy, the semi-feral cat who hangs out in the garden. He’s been on walkabout for a few weeks, and I am relieved to see him.

Go to the kitchen, call MK to give her the name of the attorney. Make a date to meet her for lunch.

Find the coupon for the car wash and go back to the car. Oh damn, the check. Go back to the house and get the check.

Go to the nearest bank drive-through. Try to deposit the check. Every time I press the button for “Deposit Check” the screen says “Your transaction is complete. Would you like another transaction?”  Give up, and drive to the ATM a mile away. Deposit the check, take out some cash.

Make the last half-hour of an estate sale. It’s a peculiar sale, full of dolls and teddy bears– but not peculiar because of that. Strange because the owner, not at all deceased, wanders among us. I buy an amber necklace for two dollars. I always feel a little guilty when I find the thing they missed, but I guess that’s why I go.

Drive to the car wash. There’s a huge line. Decide to call my family doctor to make an appointment while I’m waiting in the line. They put me on hold. Of course they answer the phone at the exact time that the girl comes to get the ticket for the car wash. She can’t get the coupon to scan, but takes it anyway and scrawls a hieroglyphic on the windshield. My appointment is for 8:45 a.m. on the 27th. I remind the phone to remind me. We’ll see if she does.

Meander down a nearby road to have a look-see at a house my friend thought she might consider. (She from the first phone call of the day.) Hmm. The road is very busy, the neighbors seem too numerous. Head back towards downtown.

Realize that I’m starving. It’s 4:30 and that granola bar was a long time ago. Go through the drive-through at Tim Horton’s. Get a chicken salad sandwich, which is very messy to eat in the car. And a maple dip donut. It’s the first donut I’ve had in two months. Delicious. When I roll up the rim on my coffee cup, I discover I’ve won another cup of coffee. Yay, me.

Arrive, still picking bits of lettuce off my jacket, at my favorite thrift shop. Wander around for 90 minutes. Find two Calphalon pots and a silk ottoman. And a stack of books, including a self-published book on a murder in Troy, Ohio. Call my husband from the parking lot, and employ “Face Time” to have a conversation with him assuming the role of my side-kick, Señor Pinchy.

Mr.Pinchy

Senor Pinchy

My husband is laughing.

When I get home, he comes out the car to help me bring in the books and the pots and the silk ottoman. My teenaged son would like to have a ride to his friend’s house.  Fine, but we feed the dogs first.

After we drop off our son, we cruise down Main Street, looking at all the remarkable architecture Dayton has to offer, in various states from abject neglect to carefully maintained. We keep driving until we are far on the other side of town. I think we might stop in somewhere for coffee and some kind of dessert to share.

First we go to Ollie’s, a strange place of cast-offs and buy-outs and insurance losses. There are a couple of books I’d like and a bag of dark chocolate miniature Toblerone.  Thank God dark chocolate is essential to our health. Of course we have to look at everything in the place: air conditioners marked “GNTW” (Guaranteed Not to Work) reading glasses, toys, books, gardening implements, pet supplies, blankets, baking pans, a whole stack of Paula Deen cookware, carpets, auto supplies, gourmet potato chips and off-season coffee. (Pumpkin, Gingerbread, Vanilla Cookie.)

We’re close to a big box hardware store and my husband just wants to check for . . . . That takes an hour.

The tire seems low, he thinks, so we stop at a gas station to add air. His favorite hamburger place is right over there, so of course we go. I had the most modest hamburger on the menu. I still have indigestion.

On the way home I get a text from a woman in Cincinnati about two dogs lost in my neighborhood; a Boston Terrier named Opie and a Frenchie name Lorelei. We head over to that neighborhood and drive around slowly in the dark. I figure they’re bedded down for the night.

When we get home, I make a large bowl of vegetables to eat.  I have just enough time to send the dogs’ owner a reassuring note and to tell her that I will be out in the morning with our own Boston terrier (a foster failure) to search some more.

Oh, and I read a story in the Daily Mail about ghost hamlets in Spain that can be bought for fifty thousand pounds.

Then it is time to go pick up our son again, as he has work in the morning. On our way to get him and on our way home, we make a detour to search again for the lost dogs.  Then we are back at home and oh, there’s Snippy again, stop to pet him.

All the dogs go out for one last whizz. My son goes off to bed. My husband looks at lawn-mower batteries online and wants me to stop and look up the numbers of those that we saw in the big box hardware store, but I plead with him to let it go ’till morning, and he says okay.

It’s 2:21 a.m.

What I didn’t do today: write.

There must be a way to put the writing first. If I want it to be so, surely I can make it that way. But even when my day is not filled with other stuff, somehow I manage to leave writing to the very end, and sometimes there’s just not enough left of me to get to it.

This has got to change.

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Burial of the Dead

Batman beneath the rose bush.
Batman beneath the rose bush.

We’re dog people. And as all dog people know, the only fault of a dog is that they don’t live long enough. When one reaches the end of her too-short life we are faced with the question of what to do next. In Montana, on our little farm, we buried them in the orchard. But the most heart-renching thing about selling the place was driving away and leaving behind the bones of Delia and Mattie, Chumley and Maude, Gus, Elinor, Sophie, Jonah.

My husband was considerably younger then, and anyway here in urban Ohio, digging a grave for a large dog will earn you some strange looks or perhaps even a visit from law enforcement. So when we lost our two elderly hounds we chose cremation, and their ashes are in handsome wooden boxes on the bookcase, with a bronze of a hound, and photographs.

It’s different for cats.  As I said, we’re dog people, but this doesn’t mean we hate cats. (I think my husband might secretly be a cat person, but he denies it.) We have had a house cat or two or three, and in Montana, a plurality of barn cats. And despite being Dog People, since we’ve been here we have somehow become custodians of a colony of semi-feral cats.

This clowder of cats is not discarded or stray. They are cats that have grown up essentially without human interference. Because they see people frequently, and because we are kind to them and provide kibble and water and shelter in the garage, some of the individuals have permitted us to speak to them, or scratch behind their ears.

Though it changes slowly, the colony does not grow. I think some of the younger males strike out to find their own way in the world, and the mortality rate for kittens is high. Raccoons can be hell on cats, and coyotes doubly so. (Yes, coyotes in downtown Dayton.) You’d think cars would be troublesome, but they seem to steer clear of those, hanging mostly in the alley that bisects our block. On the other side of the block is a large creek, a hunter’s paradise for cats.

We name them. We don’t think of them as “ours”, but naming them makes it easier to differentiate from cat to cat while talking with each other. Snippy, a cat in a Tuxedo, is the oldest. He was born in the garage about five years ago. There’s Eng who looks Siamese, her brother Chang long disappeared. Her gray tabby littermate Shadow remains and two of our own elderly spayed cats, Ariel and Jesminda like to kibbutz with the cats. Others come and stay for a year or two and simply disappear: Fat Boy and Willow, Chin, Fuzzy, GiGi, Satchmo.

We buried the calico cat “Cousin Betty” when we found her lifeless at the edge of the garage. We think probably it was anti-freeze or perhaps a poisoned mouse; there was not a mark on her. Then there was a litter born to GiGi, who we realized later must have had active toxoplasmosis. The kittens got to be about three weeks old and then each of them seized and died; first Clytemnestra, then Castor and his twin brother Pollux, and finally Helen, the tiniest and most fierce and the one that fought so hard to live. I sobbed when she died. We wrapped each one in a linen dinner napkin and buried the kindle of kittens together. Next to them is Mouse, a tiny grey kitten, doomed from the start.

Mouse’s brother, Tuukka, he of the white feet, lives in the house now.

Eisbar, having recently been rescued.

Eisbar, having recently been rescued.

Then came Eisbar. He was from the second litter his mother Eng had last spring. We placed the first two kittens with friends, and we’re glad to say that Yin and Yang are out of the colony and on someone’s couch. Eng looks Siamese and Eisbar did too.  His name is German for Polar Bear. His littermate only lived a few days, and then Eisbar disappeared. Who knows what Eng thought– maybe she thought she could save him if she took him away. We searched and searched for him and were so pleased when Julian found him under rusty steel shelves where we stacked empty garden pots. But when Eng hid him she must have punctured his neck. The skin began to slough off there. I consulted with the vet. She was kind, but we both knew the score. Day by day, hour by hour, the kitten slipped away and then died cupped in my hands.

After burying a whole litter of kittens, and Mouse, I couldn’t bear to put this one in the earth. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not squeamish about these things, but I’d reached my limit. So he too was wrapped gently in a linen tea towel, placed in a ziploc bag and nestled carefully in the freezer. I know, it seems grotesque.  I inquired about cremation for kittens who weigh only a few ounces. That much ash probably just floats away.  Then, as time went on, I grew accustomed to the idea of laying him to rest under the maple tree, another in the little line of pavers. “They were here. They drew breath. They staggered around clumsy on kitten paws. Someone cared about them.”  There’s nothing written on the pavers, but that’s what they stand for.

Of course, by then, it was the dead of winter and nobody was digging anything.

For three years we’ve watched a very careful, very handsome giant black and white cat watching us. We know that he would come to the garage to eat, but he would bolt if we surprised him at the dish. We called him Batman, but he was unlikely hero. It took him more than a year to linger at the bowl as we passed. Eventually, as we talked to him, he settled. We would say “Hello, Batman” and he would say, in a tiny voice, “Wenh.” By last summer, he had grown comfortable enough to greet us. “Wenh” said Batman.

“Hello, Batman,” we would say. The other cats made room for him at the dish. Sometimes we’d spot him sleeping on top of the toboggan in the rafters. When we say Batman was a big cat, picture a cat the size of a fox terrier. The black cape from his mask to his tail glistened with good health. A magnificent cat. Occasionally, he’d disappear for a few days and we’d say “I wonder where Batman is.”

And then we’d come home from someplace and he’d be sitting there waiting for us. “Wenh.”

One evening in February, he allowed me to rub his chin, and to run my hand along his neck. “Wenh-wenh,” he said. I commented to my husband that he’d let me pet him a little and my husband confessed that he’d snuck in a pat or two when Batman was eating.

The next afternoon on our way out to the meeting, the garage door wouldn’t swing open. Something was up against it. The something turned out to be the body of Batman.  We were utterly shocked, and so very sad. How could it be that the splendid Batman was dead? He had not seemed sick. He was not injured. He had been the picture of health. And like Cousin Betty, we are left to think perhaps he was tempted by the sweetness of antifreeze, or maybe he’d dined on a rodent laced with d-con. At least he came home to a place he felt safe. We bundled up his glorious earthly form in a sturdy box and set it aside.  Perhaps cremation, I thought, though it seemed that Batman belonged only to himself and to claim him that way presumptuous.

Weeks pass and my husband says “Soon it will warm up and we will have to do something about Batman”, and I agree.

The day arrives. A glorious spring day, after a long, long winter. The air is soft, the sun is warm, the earth can be dug.

With a pick axe and a shovel, we set about the task.

For Eisbar, a tidy pocket under the Maple tree, next to cousin kittens. I set the tiny bundle in blue linen in the grave. “Goodbye, Babushka,” says my son. I take the shovel and gently cover the kitten in earth. When I can no longer see the blue fabric, I hand the shovel to my son and he finishes the burial.

Batman is a different story. His favorite place to sit in the yard was under the rosebush, watching for whomever walked up the garden path to the house. We can’t plant him there exactly, there’s not enough room to dig. But just below that, where the lilies used to grow, there’s space there. It will take a sizable hole for such a large cat. My husband starts out with the shovel, and occasionally Julian spells him with the pick-axe, breaking up the dirt still frozen from the winter. When they take a break, I dig.

We open the box with trepidation, dreading what decomposition we might find. But it’s okay. He is diminished in death, but that’s all. We wrap him in an old and delicate white linen tablecloth. Each corner is cut away, and inset from the cut work is embroidery, each with one of the four cardinal directions, and the Chinese symbol for the same. In China, they mourn in white.

Julian and I hum the “Batman theme.” You know the one; a three-chord blues progression, punctuated with the exclamation “Batman!”. We gently fill up the grave with earth, and tamp it down as if we were tamping down a nest of eggs. It was the place where Batman liked to hang out. Now a concrete cat wearing concrete sunglasses will sit there in his stead. And I will think of Batman each time I see him, coming and going down the walk.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world with. out end. Amen.

Blocked.

I haven't been blocked by anyone in this photo. Yet.

I haven’t been blocked by anyone in this photo. Yet.

If you are opinionated (as I am) and occasionally contentious (as I can be) and sometimes cranky like me (guilty) you will eventually find yourself blocked by someone on Facebook. Or several someones. Often I don’t even notice, as the people doing the blocking are not people I know (in real life or in Facebook) but just someone on the other side of an opinion in one of many forums.

To be fair, I’ve done my share of blocking. Frequently. I have very low tolerance for name calling for instance, and if you want me to block you, that’s a quick and direct method. Similarly, threats against me or my family, a volley of expletives (again with the name calling) or the realization that you are that sleazy animal rights stalker from Southern California-in-yet-another-guise will get you the boot.

However I rarely block anyone, particularly people I know, because I’ve disagreed with something they’ve said. Nor do I un-friend them for their political persuasions, religious beliefs, eating habits or opinions. I have many friends (not just in cyber world, but in real life) and indeed, family members,  who don’t vote the way I do, express their spirituality in a different fashion and have vastly disparate opinions from mine. I don’t love them any the less for it. How boring would it be if we all went around in lockstep?

(Quite boring. I can say that while I was in Boston, probably all of my friends fit neatly into one little demographic. Montana changed all that, and the best thing I carried away from that place –other than my husband– was learning to see people as something beyond their collective sentiment.)

This is not to say that I’m not dismayed or even irritated by some of the things I see posted on Facebook. I have learned to use the “hide this” button and if the poster is zealous and prolific in their postings I click “unfollow.” That person and I are still friends, I can still look in on them, I still value them and their (sometimes wrongheaded) opinions. No doubt I have been “unfollowed” a lot. I know that I can be intense. I used to apologize for it, but not any more. It would be like apologizing for having a German car, or liking dogs or having green eyes. It is what it is. I try to rein it in enough so as not to be too rude.

Because I am direct, and plain-spoken, often my opinions are thought “rude” or “condescending” or even contemptuous when none of that was ever intended. We have yet to figure out a way to do rueful or ironic or wry in social media and being that those qualities are so often a part of my self-expression– well, I am often Misunderstood.

Since I am a professional writer, this has been a source of great frustration for me. I should be able to make my own voice easy to understand. I think the difference is that I don’t distinguish between writing an essay and writing a comment. Someone told me once that I’d have fewer problems if I learned to “dumb it down,” but that’s not going to happen. And anyway, I don’t have a low opinion of the people who I’m communicating with, at least not until they give me a reason to have that opinion.

This is all a very long introduction to saying that today I discovered I’d been blocked by a high-school classmate. I don’t know how long this block has been in place or why. There was no disagreement, not even a heated discussion. Or any discussion at all. In truth, I’d “unfollowed” her quite a long time ago, for reasons that are not important here.

I went to high school in Prince Edward Island, Canada. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky in this way. When I realized that one of the Canadian gold medalists at this year’s winter Olympics was a fellow alumna, I was thrilled. I wasn’t the prom queen, or the most popular girl in school, I didn’t get the lead in the school play. (I was the editor of the high school paper. Some roles are cast early.) But I remember high school as a place where I was as content and happy as any 16-year-old has a right to be. I had lots of friends, and some of those friendships have survived nearly 40 years, even without benefit of social networking. With the advent of Facebook, I’ve been blessed to reconnect with so many more.

Not everybody though. I don’t think I’ve had a friend request from anyone from Three Oaks Senior High School that I’ve ignored or refused, but I understand why some people didn’t send me one. Fine. No big deal. Just like in high school, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. I am “Facebook friends” with my high school boyfriend, with whom I had a serious and overly intense relationship for three years. When I saw him again a couple of years ago he introduced me to his nearly grown-up daughter as “someone who went to Three Oaks at the same time (he) did.” Geez. You think he might have at least said we were friends.

Never mind. The gist of it is that I had fun in high school and liked the people there. So today, when my old friend Anne was writing about the gym room her wonderful husband has built for her, and I saw that she was answering questions that I couldn’t see, I asked her who it was. Because I was really surprised that someone from school would block me. Not want to be friends? Okay, sure. But block me? 

When Anne told me who it was, I laughed.

In a way, it was more emotionally honest of this woman to have blocked me than to have ever have been my Facebook “friend.”  She didn’t like me in high school, though we had many friends in common and she was never openly hostile.  But she never let an opportunity pass to score off of me. If she thought she could quietly wound me, she went for it. She was one of the first instances of “backstabber” that I’d had to deal with. The O’Jays had it right: they smile in your face.

The thing was that everybody wants people to like them. I wanted her to like me. She liked my friends, why didn’t she like me? So when she sent me a “friend request” a few years ago, I accepted it, and I was pleased. That’s a little pathetic, isn’t it?

Who knows why she sent me a friend request. Maybe it was some kind of passive-aggressive thing. But it didn’t take long before there were clues that 35 years after we’d graduated she didn’t like me any better than she did in high school. I don’t know what I did or said or posted finally that made her hit the “block” button, and I don’t care. In a way I’m grateful that she took the step that revealed the truth that she glossed over for more than three decades. It’s a relief, truly, to not pretend anymore.

Left Alone

slate

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.

A neighbor said he noticed raccoons going in and out of the roof of the house across the street. So he called the mortgage company, which, the newspaper reported, coincidentally turned out to be his own mortgage company. How he knew which one to call was not addressed. The mortgage company, wishing to protect their investment, sent a contractor to see about the hole in the roof at 1614 Savanna Drive, in Pontiac, Michigan.

What the contractor noticed first was the mold. Black mold lined the walls floor to ceiling. No reporter has asked (or has answered) why the contractor went to the garage. Some news agencies quoted Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard as saying that this was not the first contractor in the house, or the first in the garage, or even the first to open the door of the cactus-green Jeep parked there, but those reports somewhat strain credulity.

For whatever reason,  last Wednesday morning, this man went to the garage of the tidy beige house and discovered, in the backseat of the parked Jeep, the body of a woman long-deceased. The condition of the body has been called “mummified,” though that’s not precisely correct. Mummification generally only occurs in situations where there is extreme dry heat or extreme dry cold. But certainly, the body in the backseat could be considered “partially mummified.”

In her book Death, Decomposition and Detector Dogs, Susan Stejskal writes that “Partial mummification is more common than people think. When a body is exposed to wind or hot, dry conditions parts of the body can slowly dry out causing the skin to look like leather stretched over bone. This can be seen in parts of the body that are exposed or not covered or protected by clothing.” Bernardino Pacris, the pathologist working the case described the skin of the woman’s body as “dry and preserved” but noted that internal organs and muscle structures had decomposed.  But “mummified” earns clicks on the internet, so “mummified” is what every news story went with.

The woman was clothed in jeans, a shirt, a heavy winter jacket. Presumably she was not barefoot, but no one has described shoes. The key to the Jeep was in the ignition, but the ignition was turned off. More to the point, probably, is that there was still fuel in the tank.  (The key might have been turned to “off” by the person who initially found the car, but a running car certainly would have long ago exhausted its gas supply.) Thus, this appears to not be a case of suicide by asphyxiation.

CBS Detroit, which ought to get some kind of medal for the most factual errors in one story, claimed that the “police” had identified the victim as the homeowner, Pia Farrenkopf. (Let us just point out for starters that Pontiac, Michigan does not have a police department, and haven’t ever since the city was locked down under “Emergency Financial Management,” a whole story in itself.) Neighbors have named the homeowner, though they never got a glimpse at the unidentifiable body.

The Medical Examiner has stated that the body of the woman will have to be identified through dental records, and the last thing on Friday afternoon, they were trying to find record of the homeowner’s dentist. The homeowner’s sister has been located and presumably DNA might also be used for identification. (Not to mention that there are probably various sources of DNA still inside the house– hairbrush, toothbrush, etc. )  But until these tests are completed, truly no one knows who was in the backseat of Pia Farrenkopf’s Jeep.

On the whole the coverage of this death has been particularly egregious. Two terms come up repeatedly in nearly every story about it. One is the aforementioned “mummified” and the other is “foreclosure.” Both of these are “distancing” words– you know those words that make the victim different from you and me. Of course, the whole situation is “different”, most of us are blessed to have friends and family who wouldn’t allow six years to go by without looking for us. “Foreclosure” implies that the person was somehow reckless with their money. One woman commented that she was “sure Farrenkopf’s creditors didn’t regard her as a saint.”

Point of fact is that Miss Farrenkopf went on paying her debts by electronic bill-pay until March 2013, when her bank account paid out the last of $54,000. Had there been less money in the account, or had her mortgage not been on an automatic payment plan, it’s quite possible the body in the garage would have been discovered much sooner. As of Wednesday, March 5th, 2014, the lights were still on at Pia Farrenkopf’s house, but the heat was off.

Though she had told neighbors that she was from Germany and planning to “move back” there, Pia Farrenkopf was from Boston, Massachusetts  one of ten children born to a Belgian mother and German father. She attended St. Peter’s School in South Boston. A photograph from her high school yearbook, shows a broadly smiling girl with long, dark shiny hair, a dimple and enormous glasses that take up more than half her face.

Later, she lived in Quincy, Massachusetts  (at 26 Francis Ave.) and in Little Rock, Arkansas (at 31 Morrison Court.) It’s been speculated that Pia moved to Pontiac for her job, which was as a contractor for Chrysler Financial. Neighbors thought she moved to the neighborhood about 1999, which was around the same time that Chrysler merged with German automaker Daimler-Benz AG, forming Daimler-Chrysler. According (again, to neighbors– who only knew what she told them) Miss Farrenkopf traveled a great deal due to her job, spending much of her time in Germany.

Somewhere in there, though, she found time to open a franchised weight loss and fitness center, “A Slender Lady of Waterford” under the  business name “PIA77” . PIA77 was incorporated in July 2003, and dissolved through automatic dissolution in July 2006. (Weirdly, the Chamber of Commerce listing for this same business notes the listing was last updated in 2012.) Pia Farrenkopf’s home address is the address on file. Most listings for PIA77 note the company’s annual income as $63,000 and the number of employees as one.

The first incarnation of “A Slender Lady of Waterford” did get off the ground for a little while. But in 2005, PIA77 was sued by the landlord for over a hundred thousand dollars for back rent and breaking the lease. There was a second address listed for “A Slender Lady of Waterford”– and though the address would put it smack in the middle of a strip mall, that precise address does not exist and the management of that mall had never heard of Pia Farrenkopf, A Slender Lady of Waterford, or PIA77.

It’s worthwhile to note that the “Slender Lady” chain has been plagued with complaints by franchisees, many of whom seem to have sunk their life savings into a company that failed to make good on their promises of corporate support and promotion. One man wrote in “Rip Off Report” that he and his wife had lost their life savings, took out a huge loan, and a second mortgage to support the franchise. He had stayed in touch with the 24 other franchisees  who had been in their training session. “All 24 are long gone,” he wrote. “Most are bankrupt, many have lost homes and even marriages. Retirements have been lost.”

Despite the failed business attempt, Pia Farrenkopf was still active with Chrysler Financial, no doubt the source of the cited $63,000 annual income. (It’s interesting that she had $54,000 in her bank account on that sort of salary, but she  might have been very frugal in her habits.) In 2007, Daimler-Benz sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management and by late 2008, the automotive industry crisis had driven Chrysler into bankruptcy negotiations. On April 30, 2009, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. By that time, no one had seen Pia Farrenkopf for at least six months.

As a contractor, Pia Farrenkopf would have been technically “self-employed,” and her contract with Chrysler Financial (now TD Auto Finance) ended in September 2008. So far there have been no details released as to whether that was the normal end of the contract, or if it was terminated early. In fact, no one has said anything at all.

Most news stories use this end-of-employment as the date she was last seen, noting also that the registration on the 2003 Jeep Liberty also expired in September 2008. Yet, she received a traffic ticket, for driving without insurance, in October 2008 and failed to appear at her scheduled court date for that offense, in January, 2009.  Perhaps the officer didn’t notice that her plates were expired. Or maybe she said she just hadn’t put the new sticker on.

The Parkside Preserve neighborhood is one of neatly kept homes; some modest, some more elaborate. The houses are owner-occupied, and many of the residents have been there since their house was built. Pia Farrenkopf’s home was built in 1998, and was appraised at $50,000. Of course, now it’s not worth anything. An overgrowth of black mold is enough to post a notice of condemnation; the discovery of a long-dead body on the premises makes the chance of rehabilitation nil.

Neighbors do remember her. They all had reasons to think her long absence was not anything extraordinary. Mail was held at the post office, one of the neighbors routinely mowed her lawn. They knew she lived alone. Occasionally lights came on or went out. “We just thought she was away a lot,” one said.  Some remembered that she said she had a son, but her sister Paula claims that Pia was childless. Who can be sure that she would even know? Pia had a dog, some said. A little white dog with curly hair. When this detail appeared in a news story, every single person who commented wanted to know what happened to the dog. Sheriff Bouchard responded that there was no dog found and no sign of a dog ever having been there.

In 2007, back when Pontiac still had a police department, someone asked for a welfare check on Pia Farrenkopf. The results of that request are murky. There’s no record of who asked for it, and only a notation that they found nothing amiss. Since the PD no longer exists, it’s remarkable that there’s that much.

If indeed the body in the car was once Pia Farrenkopf, it’s presumed that she’s been there since the winter of 2008-09. Certainly it was cold enough in an unheated garage to freeze her body. Then spring came, and a slow thaw. Then the dry heat of a closed car in a Michigan summer, followed by the crisp autumn, children rustling in the leaves as they walked home from school. Then again the winter freeze. And spring, with its tulips. And summer, hot and dry in the closed space of the garage. Outside children raced through sprinklers, the buzz of lawn mowers. Then Autumn. And again the freeze, year after year after year.

 In the meantime, in her post office box (since she was so often away from home) lay an invitation for her mother’s wedding to Edward Carroll. Edward Carroll  invited all ten of his bride’s children. None of them came. “It was a strange family, but a big one. I hardly knew all of the children and I never spoke to (Pia),” he told a reporter.

Three years later, Pia’s mother died of colon cancer, and her sister Paula Logan tried to reach her. She called her sister over and over and the phone just rang and rang inside the empty house at 1614 Savanna Drive. When one of their siblings died, Paula called, and again, only heard the phone ringing without answer.

Paula Logan told reporters that her family did not have much contact with each other, leading “rather separate lives,” and noted that her own mother had gone 30 years without talking to one of the other children. She remembers that years ago, Pia was going to marry an Englishman, until she realized that she would have to quit her job and walked away from the relationship. She said that her sister valued her privacy, which might be another way of saying “that’s why we didn’t know she was gone for six years.”  More telling perhaps is that Paula Logan told more than one reporter that her sister would have been 42 at the time of her death. But Pia Farrenkopf was born in September of 1964. She would have been 50 this fall. Or 44 at the time of her presumed death.

But as there are precious few relatives or friends coming forth to say anything about Pia, the reporters will take what they can get. Paula Logan believes that her sister would not have killed herself, and thinks that someone murdered her in the garage. “I think there was foul play. I think someone might have been in that garage,” she said in an interview. It’s quite possible there was someone. Perhaps that person carried off the little white dog when they left. Or maybe the dog died years before. It could be that Pia gave the dog away if she was planning to leave the country.

Perhaps the woman in the backseat is not even Pia Farrenkopf. It’s hard not to hope for that, a little. To think of someone on a coconut island, putting their past behind them. (Though with so little interest in her disappearance, it seems that faking her own death might be redundant.)  But then, that begs the question– if the body is not Pia’s, whose is it?

The state of decomposition will make determining the cause and manner of death quite challenging. Poisons, ligature, suffocation . . . the evidence of those events often wastes away with the body.  Or perhaps, an embolism, an aneurysm, stroke, heart failure. Toxicology will be of limited use.  Dr. Pacris, the deputy medical examiner, said that there was no obvious sign of trauma to the body. No animal predation. No bullet wounds. No fractures. For people used to reading between the lines of an m.e.’s report “no fractures” has particular significance. No fractures means the hyoid bone is intact, which makes strangulation unlikely.

The worst coverage of this story has been from CNN, whose announcers treated the unattended death of a human being as some kind of spooky Halloween story. Their lack of gravitas on this video clip should have earned them pink slips. We may all find reasons why we are not like the woman in the back of the Jeep, but that doesn’t make her death trivial.

Or does it? Several people were reminded of the Beatles’ lonely heroine Eleanor Rigby by this story. If a woman dies and no one notices, was she ever really alive?   In the scores of comments to the myriad news accounts, no one piped up to say “I used to work with Pia Farrenkopf”, or “She was my best friend in high school,” or “I took Pilates with her.” Nothing. It was not just that the “family was strange”, as the stepfather said. What sort of person has no friends?  Paula Logan is hoping that someone will come forward to say something about her sister. “She had to have had a life.”

There are only a handful of possibilities really. The body is Pia Farrenkopf and she died of some kind of cataclysmic medical emergency. Or she was murdered. Or she died from misadventure. Or she killed herself by means that we don’t yet understand.

And if the body is not that of Pia Farrenkopf,  then that’s a different mystery altogether.

 

 

The Road to Hell

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It’s an aphorism and we all know it well.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I wonder when we first learn this? At a grandparent’s knee? A mother’s retort? It seems I’ve known this little ditty all my life, but that’s only because I don’t remember hearing it for the first time.

It started somewhere though and where it is believed to have started was with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th c. French abbott. A powerful and political figure in the Church who is best known for his eloquent essays. (And penning “Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Jesus.” –though some credit that to St. Gertrude, you can never be too sure.) In the Divine Comedy, Saint Bernard appears as a guide for Dante Alighieri, as they reach the Empyrean, the abode of God in Heaven. He is the patron saint of beekeepers and wax-melters  and he wrote, in 1150, “Hell is full of good wishes and desires.”

The likes of Soren Kirkegaard, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson, Madonna (the pop singer, not the Virgin mother), Samuel Beckett, Karl Marx and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have used the phrase in their own works. It is a universal struggle, I think, to have so many things, good things, worthy things, that we wish to turn our attention to, that we intend to accomplish– and yet those fields lay fallow. Should those shortcomings damn us to Perdition?

Because this is what academics do, a team of psychology students from McGill, the University of Rochester and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth published a study in 2005 to examine whether or not perfectionists have a more difficult time “implementing intention” and achieving “goal progress.” Well, of course they do. It isn’t just because they’re perfectionists, it’s because perfectionists have standards and fail to live up to them every single day. No wonder we have such a hard time getting started.

My good intentions today included finishing a newsletter and getting it mailed. (I finished it.) Filling out an official form and returning it by email. (It’s mostly filled out.) Taking a friend who’s Blazer went up in flames (yes, I know the irony) out to look at cars, which I’d researched for him last night. He had a tight budget and a specific wish list. He bought a car, so I’d consider that the achievement of the day. But throw in a few detours (consoling the man at the print shop, who had to euthanize his elderly collie this week,and  a slog around the grocery at 5:30 on a Friday afternoon) and I came home utterly exhausted, fit for nothing.

What then, was I to write? I couldn’t fail to produce something just three days into Lent. Earlier in the morning, I’d heard the curious news story of a woman found dead in Pontiac, Michigan. She was in a mummified state in the back seat of her car, in her garage. Of course, the real question is why didn’t anyone miss her?  They are estimating she’d been in the car for six years.  The manner in which we interact with each other and the world at large is of endless fascination for me, and tonight I started in reading every account of this situation I could find. And read, and read. And made notes. And a diagram. And an outline. And then I was too tired to write the story. It’s too complex for a sleepy writer to navigate. So that is the story for tomorrow.

I had good intentions. And anyway, I don’t believe in hell.

 

 

 

Where the Day Goes

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Here it is, after midnight again. Where is it that the day goes? Earlier today I thought I had plenty of time for all that I wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t a long list, and yet here I am again, with so many things still undone.

This is more than a metaphor for my life, and for yours. It is the very model of it.  In the weeks before Christmas or as summer ends, we comment to each other, to the people standing next to us in the grocery line, to our friends on the telephone, that we can’t believe how fast the time is passing. We marvel at children who should somehow still be six or seven years old are instead graduating from college, getting married, having a baby.

My grandmother, who lived to be 96, told me that the older you got, the faster time flew by and I see that she spoke the truth. A deeply devout woman, in the last years of her life, she was eager for it to come to a close. Her husband and her oldest son long dead, her parents, most of her brothers and sisters, the one child stillborn: all of them awaited her in heaven, and she was perplexed that she was still here among the living. Like everything eagerly anticipated, death made her wait, and wait, and wait.

The other side of that story is of my other grandmother, my Nana, who also lived nearly to her 96th birthday. Though she was not well the last few days of her life, she went right on living up to the very end. Blessed to still have her eyesight, she was a keen reader and plunged each day into whatever book had caught her fancy: lurid romances and murder mysteries and serial novels. Even if she wasn’t getting out as much, her mind was busy traveling into other worlds and when she died she left a stack of books she hadn’t gotten to yet.

When I married my husband I was 30 years old. He was 48. He was (and still is) boyish and charming and active. I was surprised that he was as old as he was; he is Chinese-American and they are graced with the kindest of aging. We laughed about what our lives would be like when we were 80, 100, 120. Our son was born when my husband was 50. Before I knew it the Beatles song “When I’m 64” didn’t seem like something so abstract. (I guess it must be pretty ironic to Paul McCartney too.)

Now he is 70. He’s an athletic, active, unbelievably young-looking 70, but 70 all the same. My mother, who is ageless, said “So what?” I have to be careful in my answer, because it applies to her too, and to myself. It’s like having a hundred dollars in your wallet, and realizing that you’ve already spent most of it. Except that with time, you can’t ever get it back again. I’ve been married 21 years. In another 21 years, with the best luck possible, my husband will be 91, and I will be 73. Shit.

What happened to that girl in the combat boots? The one of the all-night Chinese restaurants, bands nobody had ever heard of, poetry readings and Balkan Sobranies? What happened to being 26 and thinking I knew all that there was there to know? What happened to feeling like I had a pocket full of cash and the night was young? So rich with possibilities.

I went to dinner with my friend Rita on Tuesday night. We ate sushi and lingered over tea, talking about her mother who is just beginning to not always distinguish between Rita and her sister. We talked about how she used to be. I talked about not being able to shake my sadness at the sense that we are running out of time, and that the people we love are running out of time too.

One of my very closest friends sat with her husband on a cold Friday morning this January as he died. He had been seriously ill and his death was expected, but not expected so soon. Its suddenness left everyone reeling,  most especially his wife and daughters. The day before I’d been with her as she bought him a book of crossword puzzles. She bought a  Word Find book too, but he told her as she gave it to him that he really didn’t care for Word Find books. Earlier in the day, he’d reminded her of a bill in a drawer that still needed to be taken care of. And then he was gone.

It’s a parlor game to speculate what you would do if you knew you only had a short time to live. The truth of it is that when people discover this, they mostly just go on living their lives, bucket lists notwithstanding. Suddenly going to Morocco or driving in the Paris-Dakkar rally or meeting a dancing bear doesn’t mean a damn thing. You breathe in, you breathe out, you gather your children. Perhaps you gather your thoughts.

If I am lucky I will still be trying to finish before that one last deadline.

But I am selfish. I want every last-minute that I can grab hold of, and I want the people I love there beside me; and even as I wish it and want it, I know that I will be denied. I will lose some of them along the way and that breaks my heart.
Where does the day go?

Writing for Lent

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I’m not Catholic. I almost wrote that I am “not particularly religious,” when I realized how that statement somehow lacks a basic truth.  There have been times that I’ve believed in God, and times that I have not.  It’s not so much that I doubt, it’s that I have simply come to the conclusion that I don’t know, and I am open to whatever the answer turns out to be.  (Except for hellfire and damnation. Even when I did go to church, I went to the Lutheran church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America does not do hellfire and damnation. I understand that even the Pope in Rome is starting to let go of such ideas.) This little essay, then, is not about religion; though it may settle for awhile in a pew, contemplating ritual.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Yesterday, in the throes of Shrove Tuesday, different friends mused about what they would give up for Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. Quite a few of them chose chocolate, and that is apparently quite a popular thing to give up for Lent. It used to be that many people gave up eating meat. Some people give up television, or beer, or Facebook. I thought about giving up argument.  This would be a tough one for me. I have a natural tendency to teach; and a very shallow tolerance for ignorance.

But then I did a little research and I discovered something about Lent that I never knew before. (Remember, I didn’t grow up in the church.) The notion of Lent is not just one of penitence, but also one of contributing to the greater good. The whole point of giving up chocolate, or meat, or beer is not just one of self-denial, but is also supposed to  enable you to give those things (or the money you’ve saved from not buying them) to someone in greater need.  Perhaps the question then, for all of us, ought to be not “What are you giving up for Lent?” but “What are you giving for Lent?” In an essay, by the Scottish Vicar Rev. Canon Gordon Reid, he suggests that instead of giving up something for Lent, one can take on something extra, and it too should serve the greater good.

Like the little drummer boy, I have no gold to give. Or meat. Or chocolate for that matter. I have only my song, the drumbeat of my fingers across the keys, the tales of my people, the thoughts in my head and those in my heart. So I am Writing for Lent.

And apparently there is a tradition for writing for Lent. People write daily devotions, they write prayers, they keep special Lenten journals. There is a long-standing custom for people to write letters to those for whom they wanted to mend a difference, often a letter a day to the same person. (Frankly, I can see how that last one might go badly awry.) In each of these instances, the church recommends reflection and repentance. But borrowing a leaf from the Reverend Canon, it seems that my own reflection and repentance is less of a gift to the world than love in all of its myriad forms.

In that spirit, I am going to write a different short essay every day for 40 days, and while I am writing I will try to keep in mind that these are supposed to be for the benefit of others. That is, itself, the greater test. Because certainly there is a selfish component to this as well: I have a much larger project that is overflowing the “in” box, and I have had a very difficult time getting down to it. Sometimes just getting back in the habit of writing every day every day every day can help you find your way to that which truly requires your full attention and best efforts. God only knows I’ve had plenty of excuses for my indolence.

I don’t imagine that I will be able to fulfill the true mission of this every single day. There will be days when I write about things that benefit no one, or perhaps I will write something because I am angry and upset. I am human, and like all the rest of us, I sometimes have feet of clay. But I will try, and in that effort is my humble gift.