Saturday, May 31, 2008

How Legends Are Made

My former neighbor Helen, Helen's dog Scooter, and I went down the block yesterday to visit the old-timers, who can always be found stoop-sitting on nice spring days.

There's a baby boom in progress on our old block. Not from the old-timers, of course, who range in age from mid-50s to pushing-80, but from their adult children. Families don't stray far from each other in old-school JC, and the grandparents have mostly moved into street-level apartments of their own homes. Y jokes that she saw her house once, right after it was renovated, and has stayed in the downstairs apartment ever since. She never came into my apartment, though it only took climbing a few stairs. She's in her 70s and her knees aren't what they used to be.

Y was busy with her two-year-old grandson and had no news to report, though her slightly younger brother, who lives next door, talked a lot about property taxes and where JC was going. My conversations with him have always been limited to local politics and the sad loss of his traditional JC fishing holes. A friend of his who lives around the corner said he'd keep an eye out for me for a cheap house that needs renovating.

A—who is 76, always wears a flowered housedress, and swears worse than any sailor—had big news. She'd sold her house and is moving into assisted living a few blocks away. She gave me a big hug, which reminded me of the time she'd given her flip-flops to the new woman on the block who needed to go into a flooded basement, or of when she'd first met Roberta after a winter snow and handed her a broom to clean off her car.

Which doesn't seem to go with her energetic use of the work "f*ck," but somehow, she makes it work.

"My f*cking house needed over $100,000 worth of work. I'm 76 years old, what the f*ck do I need a house for? My little room in the old-folks-home is $400 a month including all bills. You can't beat that."

Her best friend T, who had open heart surgery last year and got a stint put in last month, was upset initially but is accepting the move. T lives across the street and swears slightly less than A. T always carries dog biscuits, a bowl, and water for her furry friends. Murphy used to be scared of T, but A once gave Yancey a tongue-lashing in the dead of winter.

"That dog is cold! Take her home."

T is mad at J right now, for some complicated reason I didn't understand. J is living nearby with friends while her own house is renovated by the guy who bought A's house. Their argument involves rides in J's car and T's picking up J's breakfast in exchange for rides. When I told T it would blow over, she heatedly denied this.

C surprised me when she told me that the owners in my old building were stripping off the cedar panels on the front and having it redone.

"What? Why don't they just repaint?"

"They got estimates from people who said the siding hadn't been primed before the blue paint went up, so it rotted. Remember when Mike put it all up himself? He swung on a harness from the top and did it all himself."

Helen and I looked at her blankly.

"Was that the guy from Jetco?" I asked.

"Jetco? No, you remember Mike. He lived up there." She pointed to the top left apartment.

"Mike never did that. Jetco put up the siding when the sponsor owned it, before any of us bought it."

F nodded and agreed with C. "Mike hung down on a harness."

One of the babies started crying, so C organized an expedition to the park. Helen and I moved down to see K and L, who laughed at the idea of Mike hanging off on a harness.

"We had it repainted in 2004 but no one ever touched the cedar," I explained. The paint had chipped off then too. There had been a debate on what the problem was, but ultimately we'd read somewhere that cedar needed to be painted with stain rather than outdoor paint, and we'd just have to keep touching it up or strip it and start over down the road.

"I have a photo of Jetco putting the siding up," I declared. "It's from when I first looked at that apartment in July of 2002, and it had primer on it."

Silently, I added that I remembered when we painted, because Turbo (in Oz) and I were breaking up over the phone, and I'd been annoyed that the painters were outside my window hearing every word I said.

K remembered too well when the original building sponsor had fixed the outside. First, P from across the street had ratted out the new vinyl windows to the JC Historic Committee—the sponsor had been forced to put the right wooden windows in after that. He'd also spilled paint on K's roof, refused to clean it up, and K had gotten so angry that the sponsor had to hide to avoid being hit.

He'd had to hide from the other owners in my building too. He'd promised landscaping, a finished basement, and a host of other perks, and in the end, we'd had to do all these things ourselves. Helen and I had both bought at steep discounts when the owner was desperate to sell under a Starker Exchange deadline. We'd been promised nothing, as befits below-market housing.

I remembered when K had given me a lift up to the Parking Authority in December of 2006.

"It's a great block," he'd said. "But everyone likes to talk. Don't trust everything you hear."

Listening to him laugh about the siding story today, I had to agree.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Must for Travelgirls

I finally tracked down a copy of the Travelgirl magazine issue that mentioned Dik-Dik! It came out during my last stint in Cairo so by the time Amanda heard about it, it was off the shelves. I tried e-mailing the magazine a few times and finally just back-ordered all the issues from the middle-to-end of last year.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Be Glad They Still Care

At the old Marvel offices, there was a doorman that women would go out of their way to avoid. One of my assistants would walk all the way around to the back door since he always had something "nice" to say to her.

I avoided him about half the time, depending on my mood.

"Damn, girl, you sure you don't work out?" That was his classic comment to me. Which he repeated dozens of times over the years.

It must be boring to work as a doorman.

Today, at my current office, the doorman (who I've barely spoken to) said:

"If you had an autobiography, I'd spend a hundred dollars to buy it."

He smiled.

I didn't pause.

"It's only $15.95," I yelled back as I boarded the elevator.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Slog

Some days, like today, I struggle for inspiration. I have so many things to do—a book to write, a outline to send to Yancey, even a day job to catch up on.

And I just can't. I pace around, water my tomato plant, procrastinate on Facebook. Anything is better than facing the muses. My brain is too dull to entertain even my own self. Guilt eventually intercedes, which means that not only am I feeling boring and lazy, but now also guilty for my lack of productivity.

Then I flee. Yesterday to my bicycle. The day before to yoga. Today to the edge of the Hudson River.

"Where is Marie?" I wonder. "Where is the hard-working, dynamic, gutsy gal, and how do I get her back on demand? She's always elusively come and gone, but she's been gone for too long. I need her now. She has a book to write."

Instead of finding my happier self down by the water, I am taunted by the Manhattan skyline. I am over here, where I exiled myself on purpose. Over there, I would feel vibrant simply by going to the corner deli. Have I perhaps been in exile too long?

But changes of scenery offer only temporary fixes. I know this because when I travel alone, I remember to be alive. Nimbleness of mind, an open heart, and brazen confidence come easily when I'm away from my usual trappings. But that doesn't last. I always come home to routine, and every time I come back, I find I've lost a little more of my home life while I've been gone.

There's no way around it. Muse or no muse, Dull Marie or Lively Marie, JC or the East Village. Gotta slog through it.

Maybe my pocket hippo can help.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Jersey Side

Her back has to face somewhere, I guess.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Hey Kids! Comics!

Three comic book items to report tonight:

1) My company is branding a theme park in Kuwait with its characters.

2) I found some old vouchers from my Marvel coloring days. Between April 23, 1990, and December 11, 1996, I colored 2,570 pages, but I was missing my 1993-1994 records, as well as my 1997-2000 invoices. (I think I destroyed them during my zealous shredding phase last April.)

3) I found this in the San Diego Comic Con magazine. I wonder if they put this in other convention magazines—like for HR conventions or financial services conventions—or if it's special just for the comic book industry. Maybe I'm just sensitive, but isn't this borderline cliched and kind of obnoxious? I don't know about my fellow comic book professionals, but I shower daily and don't drool or have food in my beard. And yes, there are some wacky people at comic cons, but it's hard to smell them outside their Stormtrooper armor.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Day in Court

"Your honor, I plead Not Guilty because the driveway was too big. It used to be a single driveway and now it's double. Here, I have a photo."

The defendant approached the bench. The judge took an offered photo.

"Let it be entered into the record that the defendant provided evidence of a photo of a double driveway in front of a large house. There is a large NO PARKING sign across the driveway. Is that your car parked in front of the driveway? But you are pleading Not Guilty to parking in front of the driveway?"

The crowd, all defendants as well, tittered. We'd all entered the JC courtroom scared of the judge and the system, but so far the judge had been simultaneously stern, sympathetic, and amusing. He'd let the first defendant, a wheelchair-bound senior citizen with a breathing apparatus, off when she'd said she'd had to go into some office and get foodstamps. He hadn't let the guy off who bluffed that his summons had been sent to the wrong address so what was the court going to do about the fact that this might not even be him? (Nice try, had you not just claimed slow meter and admitted to the offense.)

I was confident about my case. I'd gotten a ticket for parking in a "No Parking, 6 am - 10 am, Mon-Fri" space in front of my home. On a Sunday afternoon. If I'd known where the ticket writer was that day, I'd have given him advice on learning to read. I'd taken a digital photo of the sign and printed it out (at, um, work on the fancy printer, sorry, boss).

"Let it be entered into the record that the defendant has submitted a... camera phone with an image of a curb with no yellow or red painted on it. Not Guilty. You are free to leave."

I hadn't had so much fun in weeks. It had been inconvenient to have to leave work early and go out to Journal Square, but this was better than going to the movies.

"Marie Jaa-vins?"

I approached the table. With confidence. I couldn't be more in the right. I quietly rubbed my pocket hippo for good luck. In one minute, I'd be sailing out the doors to catch the Latino minibus back to my part of town.

"Ms. Javins, you are here on two charges. How do you plead?"

"TWO? I'm Not Guilty on the one—here's the sign—but what's the second?"

"December 2006, parking on Sixth and Monmouth without a permit."

Shit. December, 2006? WTF? What was I doing there? Would I have parked there? Isn't that a permit-free block? What year is it? Did I live here then? Argh, I don't remember!

"Um, how much is the fine?"


Ah, to hell with it.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fries With That?

I passed a tiny restaurant last week, down in Paulus Hook, where the really nice brownstones are, near where Nancy used to live.

I wasn't hungry but I had to stop in when I saw their menu. What do you suppose is on an Egyptian Sandwich?

Dik-Dik Safari

Yasir photographed two gorgeous dik-diks in Kenya. Check them out!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Every Girl Needs a Pocket Hippo

Who needs to go to the Caribbean to write? I'm going to write here at home. Cuz Yasir and Sufia went to Kenya, where they found me a tiny soapstone pocket hippo. The pocket hippo is a well-known cure for writer's block. At least for writers working on books about being cursed by a hippo and then fleeing to Kuwait and Egypt to escape the damn thing.

Yasir wrapped my pocket hippo in Daily Nation obituaries, a piece of black tape, and FedExed it from Cairo. I am thrilled with my pocket hippo.

My only question is this: Should I carry the hippo with me in my pocket, or should I leave it at home on my desk?

Monday, May 19, 2008

School on the Hill

Another fun fact that I learned yesterday at the JC oral history symposium: Dickinson High School up on the cliff above downtown was modeled after Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg.

Who knew?

The most I knew about Dickinson before was that it is humongous, and in 2004, a student there managed to order a BMW online and have it delivered to him before anyone caught on that he was just a kid.

Below Dickinson, down in my neck of the woods, we have McNair Academic. It's a much smaller high school that this month once again made the Newsweek list of best high schools in the country. And to think it was just about 20 years ago that JC schools were judged so bad that the state took over...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some Like it Hot

I went to a JC oral history symposium today at the JC Museum. When the City Council President said he'd lived in a cold-water flat as a child, he stopped and looked up.

"Does anyone here know what a cold-water flat is?"

A few people raised their hands. I was one of them.

"It's an apartment without heat or hot water."

My old condo had been built as a cold-water flat. Though now it has, of course, a hot water heater and baseboard heat.

My old block had about 14 single family homes, and dozens of retrofitted cold-water flats from the late 1800s or early 1900s. This isn't as awful as it sounds, (though my sixty-year-old neighbor, who had lived in my place when he was four, remembered it as being "really cold"), because the apartments all had gas heaters that sat in fireplaces (which weren't for fires at all). The gas was also used for lighting.

A 74-year-old neighbor had kept her gas heater, and my upstairs neighbor had sandblasted and restored it for her. It was exquisite with all its detailed decorative metal work.

"And it still works," she'd state proudly.

I don't have a photo of that gas heater, but I spotted this one on a realtor's website yesterday.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hot Bargain!

Here's a bit of complete insanity.

In Brooklyn, you can buy a parking space for $100,000. Yes, that's right. A space. Not even a garage.

But wait! There's more!

Once you buy this tiny space, you still have to pay $220 a month PLUS $37 a month tax.

There is something seriously wrong with real estate in this part of the world. (And with people who insist on owning cars in places where there is no compelling reason to own a car.) Though I have to admit, I feel smug right now about my single-car garage I bought for $25,000 in 2004.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Life is About Compromises

My bank called me today.

"A branch where you used the ATM was compromised. You'll have to change your ATM card and PIN."


No, not again. This was a routine phone call, but actually, I'd already reported the breach last Thursday.

Last week, I went to the ATM near my office to take out cash for the weekend. Something caught my eye. Something strange.

Seems I'd withdrawn a hundred euros that morning in Madrid. At 6:21 a.m. I was not awake at 6:21, and I certainly hadn't been in Madrid. I've never been to Madrid, not even when I lived in Barcelona!

I changed my PIN, filed a report, and ordered a new card. But I actually thought the withdrawal was a banking mistake, that this error would be investigated and rectified. While I seem cynical, I actually have faith in the innate goodness of most people, a byproduct of being helped along the way as I've traveled the world.

Instead, it turned out that this ATM withdrawal was real, that someone else had mined my details and created a card, which was then used to withdraw a hundred euros at 6:21 a.m. in Madrid last Thursday. My bank had taken more than a week to work this out, so I'm glad I found the compromise on my own.

I'm a little annoyed that it took them so long and that the scam originated at one of their own branches. But they credited my account bank with the hundred euros.

They even gave me back the "foreign fee."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Better Really, REALLY Late than Never

I gave iWeb a try to make myself a new site, using a canned template.

Those of you who remember the ancient being up for years will probably be relieved that the old one is finally gone.

I'm still working on the "Works" section, trying to figure out the best way to post some samples. It's not quite working yet.

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Defeated...for Now

I've given up on using my tax rebate on flying to the Caribbean.

Armed with a guidebook and map, I started northwest and worked my way through the islands, checking the American Airlines website to see what destinations I could get to this weekend on my miles.

I found a half-dozen places, and started digging around on hotel sites. But there are a lot of islands in the Caribbean, and I was baffled in short order. Some places were simply too expensive. Others, I couldn't tell if I'd need a form of transportation or not. Zora recommended Cancun, but there were no seats available to Cancun. Sara mentioned Bermuda, but hotels turned out to be insanely expensive there. St. Lucia looked most promising, but shouldn't I go for a week if I go there? The Dominican Republic was do-able, but hotel reviews on TripAdvisor scared me.

After three hours spent chasing possibilities around the Internet last night, I gave up in exasperation. I'm so tired of looking that even Atlantic City sounds draining.

The Hyatt in JC sounds pretty good right now. And it has a pool.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Video Puppets On My Side

"Please please please let the video puppets say dik-dik!"

Amanda had mentioned MariesWorldTour in a piece she'd written for a lifestyle-type website. A fact-checker from an ad agency checked with me a week later.

"How do you pronounce your last name?"

Lucky for me, the man was named David.

"The -avi- is like in David, not Javits."

(In 4th grade, the gifted and talented teacher sat me down and lectured me that I said my name incorrectly. I didn't know about the David trick then, so I'd just said "It's Jay-vins, not Jaaa-vins." I probably wanted to cry. I had no defense as she pointed at my name and cited some imagined rule of grammar. But I digress.)

Sadly, the thorough video puppets did not utter the dirty-sounding but utterly innocuous word, dik-dik. But they were kind enough to say my name right. Check it out.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Welcome Over the Hill

Today, my long-time good friend (since January, 1988!) Steve Buccellato turns 40.

Poor man. I promised him that it will get better tomorrow. It's the lead-up to 40 that is so stressful, but the reality is he'll wake up tomorrow, and everything will be normal, and he'll feel a little silly for having stressed about it at all.

At least, that's what happened to me.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Hidden Agendas

My $600 tax rebate is here! Woo-hoo!

If I were a good citizen, I would spend it patriotically and with abandon, on a flat-screen TV or new paint for Henry the Ford Taurus. The plan is for us 'mericans to be encouraged to spend, not to save.

Well, I'm spending it, but it's not helping the anemic economy. I'm going to the Caribbean. Or maybe Bermuda. I'd go to Suchitoto, El Salvador, which sounds interesting but no, in this case, it is utter boredom I seek. A resort may well be the answer.

"Huh?" I hear you and understand. But consider this:

I have this thing called a day job. A start-up day job in a labor-intensive industry. Got an ad that isn't quite the right size for the Indian licensor? Someone should extend the edges in Photoshop. Uh-oh, that someone is me. An Indonesian magazine editor has an error on our iDisk? Well, someone grab the files and upload them again! (Oops, that's me too.) And someone has to read scripts, proofread newspaper stories, and do normal editor work too (like threaten freelancers who better quit reading this and get back to work). It eats up most of my waking hours.

But I have this book proposal that I've been working on for months. And it's almost done. I just need a few days without distractions.

Somehow, that never happens.

My scheme is to use this tax rebate to go for a long weekend to somewhere dull. Somewhere maybe where I have to walk to a hotspot to get online (so no one from work can find me). Somewhere without anyone I know.

It so happens that I despise the beach. This is weird, yes. Most people love the beach. I find it boring, hot, and sandy. Resorts generally feature beaches. I could do some laps in the resort pool in the morning, then get to work. Cuz there's nothing else to do but go to the beach.

A noble goal, this finishing the book proposal.

But what if something more sinister is boiling unspoken, deep within Marie-gut? Could I crave a passport stamp to put Edward Readicker-Henderson in his cheeky place? Am I jealous of C's freelance international lifestyle, something I myself had for half a decade? Haven't I already proven that I am capable of solo travel (just a bit)? Couldn't I just go to some cabin in the Poconos and be REALLY bored?

We'll see. Right now, the entire Caribbean is this mind-boggling blur to me, and I'm overwhelmed with isolating the right destination. Bring on the ideas, but remember, the more social or interesting the place sounds, the less point there would be in going there.

And if it's domestic, forget it. Not that I care, of course.

The question, then, is this:

What's the most boring place you've ever been to?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

An Editor's Bonus

This is Noora, a character in the comic book that I edit. The artists—June Brigman and Roy Richardson—drew Noora for a style guide we are putting together, and then gifted me with the piece after we were finished with it. I love it! It's going on my wall.

When June and Roy aren't drawing for me, they are working on Brenda Starr or teaching art classes.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mission to Burma

Normally, when a crisis on the level of the Myanmar cyclone hits, I click over and give money to the relief effort.

But this time, it's hard to figure out who to give to. A military junta rules Myanmar (Burma). They decide who gets in and who doesn't. Many NGOs limit their activities in Myanmar because it's hard to get the job done under oppressive, corrupt conditions.

And this military government suddenly finds itself asking the outside world for help. 22,500 people are dead. 40,000 more are unaccounted for. Up to a million people may have lost their homes.

But which agencies will be allowed in? I want to give to an agency that has the best chance of getting permission to get across the border, and of course I want the money to go to helping people, not to some kind of fund that the Myanmar government ends up controlling.

I think I'm going with Doctors Without Borders, because they are already in and on the ground. But here's a good list of the charities that are assisting in the relief effort, so maybe I'll go with one of them.

Anyone else have a suggestion?

Monday, May 05, 2008

MJ's NJ Summer Wishlist

When I was writing the New Jersey tent camping guidebook in 2004, I kept running across things I wanted to do here in NJ. But I was on deadline and then I moved to Spain, then went to work at a day job, then to Africa, and so on.

Roberta, Kraiger, and I climbed Mt. Tammany a few years ago, but I never got to do all the other things I wanted to do. What things?

  • Hike the Batona Trail, a flat, sandy, 49.5-mile trail through the state parks of the Pine Barrens.

  • Go on a Jersey Devil "hunt" and camp-out.

  • Visit Wildwood to see the neon.

  • Spend a night and day at Cape May.

  • Camp along the Delaware River in a walk-in space at Bull's Island.

  • Canoe in the Pine Barrens.

  • Bike the D&R Canal towpath.

  • Walk the JC section of the Morris Canal.

  • Camp at the most urban campground in, perhaps, the USA. And if I don't like it, I can walk the half-mile home.

  • Hike some of the NJ Appalachian Trail.

  • Canoe the Meadowlands.

  • I'm going to try to do as many of these as I can this year. I'm off to a good start; I have reservations for the June 21 Meadowlands canoe trip.

    Saturday, May 03, 2008

    World Tour in a Book

    It seems like a year ago that I wrote the text for the children's 3-D World Atlas & Tour. Actually, it was in December, 2006. That was a crazy time, when I was selling my condo and moving into an East Village sublet before jetting off to Cairo. I can't believe I wrote a book, did my day job, sold my place, moved all my stuff into storage, and moved to Manhattan and then to Egypt all in one month. Do you remember the few nights I spent at the Newark Airport Hilton, because my sublet ended before my flight to Barcelona, en route to Cairo? (Don't worry, the Newark Hilton is cheap on Priceline.)

    The book is finally coming out in November of this year. Andrea (the editor, last seen on this blog wearing white) sent me the catalog with the ad for the book. It was work-for-hire, but I'm still really excited about this book. I've seen the galleys and it looks great.

    Friday, May 02, 2008

    What, Me, Snarky?

    Writer Edward Readicker-Henderson has a new book out. It's called Under the Protection of the Cow Demon and I wrote a pull quote for the back cover.

    I wrote something about the book being a romantic poetry of place. Had he, however, already written his article on Strip Passport when I sent him my review, I might have written something like this.

    "Catch me if you can, but prepare to shiver!"

    Check his article out. In it, he lets on that I'm secretly (okay, not so secretly) snarky, and claims that I flew to Bahrain to eat bacon.

    Thursday, May 01, 2008

    Heavy Boots of Lead

    Okay, no one asked for my opinion on the movie version of Iron Man,* and this isn't so much about that movie as a complaint about so many comic books and their ancillary products, including the ones I myself have worked on.

    The movie itself is entertaining enough. It's got a great cast and enough unexpected humor that it should be a box office hit (except maybe in Afghanistan, ho-hum, what a novel idea to place the scenes of lawlessness there, and hey, let's make it in caves! Everyone knows bad guys live in caves in Afghanistan). I was kind of bored for much of it, because while the character interaction and funny bits were novel, the overall arc was tried-and-true, freshened up by brilliant interpreting of Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark. The cast looks like they're having fun for much of the movie.

    Did I like this movie? Well, yeah, it was fun. Was I bored? Yeah, that too. Am I amazed whenever anyone finishes anything creative and don't they deserve kudos for things existing and being more-or-less entertaining? Hell yeah.

    So what's my beef here?

    I am so sick of comic book stories starting with the origin.

    And I've had enough of the hero saving the day by fighting off something that only exists because of missteps made by our hero. The Silver Surfer wouldn't have to fight off Galactus if he hadn't brought Big G to Earth in the first place. Iron Man made a big mess and then he had to clean it up. I get that to have a credible threat, writers and editors always have to up the ante, which often means coming up with a threat as powerful as the hero, but can't there be external threats once in a while, where the hero actually has to save the world from something that he didn't create himself?

    I know, I know. Finger-pointing. As an editor, I am guilty as charged. But there's so much pressure to tell certain types of stories. Everyone starts at the beginning, with the origin. It's simply DONE that way. To fight it, a team would need the support of creative and corporate interests. (An editor has the unrewarding job of forging compromises between corporate and creative interests, which means it's amazing that anything at all gets published.)

    I'm sorry for ranting. I'm just tired of seeing the same structure over and over. Let's try starting the story in the middle, or heck, even at the end. It worked for David Lean.

    *Want a great review? Read Heidi's.