May 24, 2012


On May 10, I trekked downtown to the Rayburn Building  to witness Allergy & Asthma Day Capitol Hill 2012, sponsored by AANMA (Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics). It was inspiring to see a room crowded to overflowing with doctors, concerned parents, and congressional staff, all talking through the FDA's proposed changes to how allergy medications are prescribed. To summarize the dilemma at hand: kiosk consultations and over-the-counter distribution of such medications as EpiPens would ease access for some, but could undermine the critical infrastructure of diagnosis and advice tailored to the patient.

I met Charles G. Thiel, who invented the metered dose inhaler in 1956, and the four amazing girls in the photo above. They were the under-18 finalists for this year's "Ultimate Inhaler Contest," in which the AANMA invited inhaler designs that were more attractive, efficient, and fun. My favorite was the "Unisaur," an "Inhaler/Holding Chamber Combo" designed by twelve-year-old Rachael Blaine, of Manchester, PA. (She says unisaur; I say narwhal.) Holding chambers, also caused spacers, were introduced to inhaler usage in the early '90s. Until then kids like me tended to jam the inhaler tightly in our mouths, depressing the spray in a way that coated the back of the throat rather than dispersing and reaching the airway it was designed to help. What can I say? That silver taste was comforting, especially when in the grip of an asthma attack. With a spacer, the metered dose has a chance to aerate post-expulsion and be breathed in, rather than pseudo-swallowed. 

This year's theme was celebrating "Innovations in Technology," so AANMA had set up a table display of outdated medical treatments for asthma and allergies. Dr. R. Schiffman's Asthmador Cigarettes, "to relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms." (Active ingredients: Stramonium and Belladonna.) Clima-maske, anyone? It all seems so surreal and awkward as to be a joke. 

But then, under glass, I saw it: first spacer I'd ever been given. A baby blue, collapsible canister that predates today's rigid aerochambers. I'd hated that thing. O how it wheezed like an accordion. O how spit crusted around its poorly-designed  mouthpiece.

If you'd have told me in MFA days that my career as an author would bring me down to Capitol Hill on a Wednesday morning, or have me posing for photos with kids, I'd have thought you were crazy. I never expected this part of my identity--the perils and hoop-jumping of asthma and allergy--to be on the pages of a book. For that matter, I never expected to be  memoirist; I thought I'd always have that veil of poetry, no matter how flimsy and artificial, protecting me from intrusive interpretations of my work. 

Now my creative life and my personal life are one. On a bad day, that leaves me feeling exposed, or in over my head--asked to counsel beyond my qualifications. On a good day I make incredible, insightful connections with people who are so excited to see sympathetic experiences on the page. And I find myself wondering where to go from here. These conversations, these meetings, these days of advocacy: they change lives. Including mine. But I have to let it all aerate before I breathe it in, and before I decide what the next book will be. This summer is my spacer. 

May 08, 2012


Eleven days. Remember that. All in eleven days. 

It began with a drive from DC to Brooklyn, a reunion with my TRIP CITY crew in the Hang Dai office next door to BookCourt, where I'd be reading that evening to launch the paperback of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. Realization that the launch needed drinks-->frantic runaround to secure wine and cups-->Thai dinner with four writer friends (DC & NYC worlds collide)-->my reading-->a perfectly balanced scotch cocktail with another writer friend (from VCCA days)-->Rev Jen's Anti-Poetry Slam at the Bowery, where I saw not one but two naked men in the name of art. Unattractively naked men. Drove to my uncle's place up on West 85th, my first time ever driving in Manhattan, and pondered getting two suitcases up to a five-story walk-up. Chose to nap for an hour in the car instead. Woke up, got inside, set the alarm to move the car to a legal parking place at 7 AM.

Another day, another reading in Brooklyn: a launch for the gorgeous redesign of AMERICAN POET. But first a meeting at the New York Times offices (outside, playing it cool // inside, what?!? this building is so fancy! will I get to write for them? maybe?? pleasepleaseplease), sushi lunch with another food allergy memoirist, interview for at Random House, bloody mary with a fellow freelancer at Bubby's. First time in DUMBO. I stuffed the month's bills & checks into a postal box; some of them would disappear forever. Yusef Komunyakaa stood us up, so Thomas Sayers Ellis (bless his crazy brilliant heart) did his best Yusef impression. Late-night with the TC crew, where we literally pooled nickels and dimes to cover the six-person bill. Got dropped off at a subway stop that turned out to be closed; lost and intimidated by the men hanging out in the park, called my friend to come back, pick me up, drive me...around the corner. Where there turned out to be a perfectly functional subway stop, albeit one where I walked nine blocks on the Manhattan end. Watered my uncle's plants, his one request. Set my alarm for 5 AM to drive to BWI.

Got to Baltimore and flew to Atlanta. Rented a car and drove to Birmingham, to crash on the couch of a friend from Oxford days. Laughed a lot. Gossiped a little. Slept hard.  

Drove to Mississippi to "Experience Poetry in Vicksburg" on a Saturday afternoon. If being practical, this would have been the reading to cancel once committed to being in NYC two days earlier. But you just don't do that.And there turned out to be a library auditorium full of good people, a great conversation, an honorarium I didn't know about, every copy in my stock of all three titles sold by Lorelei Books, and garlic-stuffed olives I scarfed down by the handful at a fun reception (I know, I know--never kiss me). I went from crashing on a 20-something's couch to sleeping in a 20-foot ceilinged room in a B&B built in 1860. 

Next day: realizing my B&B had no pantry I headed to Anchuca, built in 1830, where I sipped sweet tea & gave the Southern chef a panic attack with my allergies. (" this lactose intolerance?" "No. This is severe, deadly, no cheese no butter no nothing." "Oh. Just checking.") BBQ breakfast? Whatever works. I stood on a balcony once occupied by Jefferson Davis. Toured National Military Park, realizing my comment from the reading the day before while reading "Antietam"--about the anticlimactic nature of field trips to Civil War battlefields--applies to every town BUT this one. I looked down cannon barrels. I peered up at domes. I stood in the body of the U.S.S. Cairo. Vicksburg ain't kidding around. 

Stopped off in Jackson for campari (with grown-ups) and playing kitties (with a little'un). Note to self: when breaking up a drive, don't clear a mere hour on the first end, leaving six hours on the other end. Ate an entire bag of apple chips while trying to stay awake. That's the equivalent of five apples. Napped in a McDonald's parking lot off I-40 E. Rolled into Atlanta's Highland Inn at 2 AM.

Hid out at the Highland Inn. Had a very affirming phone call regarding the New York Times. Had a very alarming phone call regarding the New York Times. Couldn't absorb having something fall through before I'd even laid in my own bed to daydream about it. Bought myself a ring. Bought a Father's Day gift. Went to dinner at Doc Chey's with a poet friend. Restless, wandered out to hear stand-up in Little Five Points. Was asked by a man on the street: "Do you think you know poetry? Because I can show you poetry." 

The next morning I migrated from the boho charms of the Highland Inn (burned out light bulbs) (scavenging Folger's coffee and an unripe banana every morning) to the luminous beauty of SCAD's Ivy Hall (chandelier) (fridge stocked with juice and San Pellegrino). Turned on computer; demoralized by number of unread emails; turned off computer. Led a workshop on "Projecting Your Voice on the Page." Tried to look pretty for the photographer despite having only had two baths in a week. Reading. Dinner ambush: a salad in which the squash I'd okayed did its finest cucumber impression. Beers at Manuel's Tavern with three poets. Arguing over the Decatur Book Festival, bluffing about the future of bookselling, commiserating over the job market.

Got up, flew home to BWI, discovered my car battery had gone dead in the airport parking lot. Got a jump. Needed to drive home, fast, and work. Drove home, ate an entire bag of roasted peanuts, and watched three episodes of Gossip Girl

Thursday. Had to be in Vienna, Virginia, by 10 AM to lead a discussion for the "Writing Your Personal History" symposium. Made it by 10:03. Was so busy signing books at the lunch break that I ate my embarrassingly fragrant basil-chicken with a plastic fork while hunkered down against a wall during the next presenter's talk. Dashed to my folks' house nearby so I could take a 3 PM conference call for being a judge at this year's Poetry Out Loud semifinals. Alice Quinn recited her office number over the line and I resisted the urge to jot it down. Another phone call that resurrected my hope in the New York Times gig. Sat on the deck with my mom and tried, helplessly and haphazardly, to catch up. Drove on to DC just in time to catch Philip Levine give his closing address as Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Waved to Ron Charles of the Washington Post. He didn't recognize me until I teased him about it over Twitter the next day. 

On Friday, May 4, it turns out I won the Larry Neal Writers' Award from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I wasn't there to accept, to my eternal regret. Where I was--and where I know I needed to be--was in Great Falls, at my mother's first open studio for a solo art show in over two decades. 

That's my mom. She is amazing. 

So I didn't even know I'd won. I didn't know until I got an email from one of the other finalists that arrived Saturday night. May 5. My birthday--and the unholy extravaganza known as Cinco de Sandra. I had woken to an entire day spent shopping for beer, bottles of water, chips, pretzel goldfish, gummi worms, tablecloths, flowers...and a fancy dress because damn it, I haven't bought a single item of clothing in over a year. I got out the construction paper and the rubber cement, made five small signs and one big one. At 7 PM we got access to a space that had to be ready by 8 PM. A man came up and said "I love your work," and I asked him if he could help assemble a table. A man walked up and said "Happy Birthday," handed me a mini bottle of Knob Creek, and walked away without ever telling me his name. 

We came. We hustled. We jimmied tech hook-ups and poured chips and crammed flowers into water. We mingled (well, everyone else did; I dervished). There was an amazing DJ. We read. We projected comix. We laughed. My sister bartended with style. Eric ran a half-mile to get five extra bags of ice. I saw students, old friends, writers, strangers. I said to my sister "I'm going to read a dirty poem, don't listen." And by midnight we had to be packed up and cleared out. 

This life moves so fast. I say that with neither pride nor self-pity; I know better than to think it will always be this way. I say that with wonderment. Some days, I worry that a life moving so fast won't allow anyone to get close enough to love me. Then comes a day when I stand in a room with 70 people singing "Happy Birthday," and my heart is filled to bursting. 

Washington, DC

Eleven days. Six readings. That's what I've been up to lately.