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Letter from New York, 2005

January 26, 2015 | by

Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.

Photo: Casey Bisson, via Flickr

I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.

Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.

I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”

Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?” Read More »

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Letter from a Retreat

September 29, 2014 | by

How not to meditate.

Himalaya_sud_avion

Photo: Michel Royon

Martin had a long pair of navy-blue socks that he wore when it was cold. He wore them in the morning before sunrise, and usually took them off before noon.

We were doing a silent, shamatha meditation retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas. The retreat was led by a stern Zen monk from Japan. We referred to him by his honorific, Venerable. Venerable was tall. It was hard to determine his age. He might have been fifty years old, at most. He wore aviator-style glasses. He had square front teeth. His eyes tilted a bit down at the outer corners, down toward his ears, giving him a sad, warm, sexual look. He was handsome and he was stern. He told us that if we learned to sit shamatha, we would no longer have nightmares, and all our anxieties would reveal themselves as mental disturbances and nothing more. He asked us to consider, when we were feeling anxiety, if that was really bliss. Really look at it, he said, really ask yourself. Actually, I don’t think he understood our practice, but I think he’d gotten some instruction, and I was a little offended and a little uneasy that he’d come and sit here and insult us—suggest vaguely that his style of Buddhism was superior. But maybe I was imagining it.

On the first night of the retreat, Venerable told us that ego is like a vampire. Martin, whom I was secretly dating, raised his hand and asked how, if he was to think of his ego as a sneaky vampire, he was expected to relax. The phrase “sneaky vampire” got stuck in my head. The question seemed like a comeback. It made Venerable seem, all at once, ridiculous. I was afraid, while Venerable answered, that I would start laughing, so I didn’t hear his answer. The next person asked a question. I was still thinking “sneaky vampire.” Then I broke. I started laughing. Each time I got my laughing under control, it would explode again, worse, when I thought, “sneaky vampire” while looking at Venerable’s handsome face, noticing his elegant comportment. Venerable was answering an Australian paraglider’s question about light. “Ah, light,” he said, “that is a big subject. For that, come and talk to me in private.” Read More »

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Letter from a Haunted House: Part 2

October 23, 2012 | by

The story so far

Usually I go to bed early, but given all the recent ghost activity in my house, I was getting a little spooked. So I was still up at eleven P.M., in bed and on the phone with my husband, Clancy. While we were talking, something black circled my bed twice, so fast I wasn’t sure I saw it, and then flew into a storage area where I have been slowly setting up a shrine. I yelled out twice while it circled me, but somehow Clancy didn’t hear me and continued talking.

I said, “There’s a bat or a bird in my apartment.”

“Is it a bat or a bird?”

“I don’t know. It may be a bird. I think it’s a bat.”

It had flown through so quickly, now I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. I said, “I think he’s in my shrine.”

I got a broom and went to look. It was only my second experience with a bat, and I didn’t know if he would get scared and come flying at me.

On the far wall, hanging from a pipe, was a very small thing. It might have been a clump of dust, or a piece of metal pipe with a cap over it, or it might have been a very tiny bat, hanging upside down, wings folded.

Read More »

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Letter from a Haunted House: Part 1

October 3, 2012 | by

I rented my apartment, a large studio on the top floor of a three-story house listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, sight unseen, through Craigslist. When my mom asked me, months later, for its address, I had to do a Google search. Among the results was a mention of my place being haunted. I didn’t click on the link. I did mention it to my husband, Clancy, in passing.

On the day I moved in, without giving it any thought, we started to refer to one storage space—there are three, two low-ceilinged ones on either side of the pitch-roofed room and one closet—as “the bad area.” We had barely walked in, we (at least I) had forgotten the ghost, and here we were—“the bad area.”

In fairness to the rational-minded, the bad area was just that. It had a white door on hinges that came to my chest. The floorboards were unfinished. Brown insulation fiber had come loose in the ceilings and was all over the floor. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. An industrial, kevlar-and-aluminum fire-escape ladder was in one corner. The previous tenant lived here three years. I don't think he swept in there one time. I don't think anyone did. (The other storage area was half open, clean, with finished floors.)Read More »

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Letter from India: The Haunting

September 6, 2012 | by

“I think this hotel is haunted,” I told my traveling companion, Clancy.

I have never said anything quite like that before. Now, I have unconventional beliefs. I believe when others tell me they have seen a ghost, particularly if they have details—say, a long nose and a tuxedo, or a suggestion from an old lady that we “touch now, dearie.” But it still sounds like crazy talk. I am aware of that.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Really?”

Then we were both afraid to turn out the light. We were in the Rajmata Suite, where the woman who lived in the hotel used to sleep, back when it was a home. Actually, the correct word is palace. When you turned out the light it was pitch black in the room. In that darkness, I felt—briefly—a unique dread. It was not a menace. Just a funny intimation. To put it into words is to coarsen what was fine: an intimation that one day I would die.

Read More »

9 COMMENTS

Letter from India: The Permit, Part 3

August 22, 2012 | by

The story so far: Clancy and Amie continue to struggle to obtain the elusive permit that will allow them to find accommodation in a remote mountain area.

We stayed one night in McLeod Gange. It might be called the woo-woo capital of the world. Woo-woos everywhere—frustrated, blissed out, on drugs—unwashed woo-woo land, with lots of coffee shops.

In the morning, we passed a black street dog with white paws. He limped on a hind leg.
Clancy said, “Hey, White Socks, how’s it going?”Read More »

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