Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When Toddlers Attack

Let me paint you a little picture:

A hiker, a woman, is blithely treading through the forest when she happens upon a grizzly bear. 
The bear lifts its head and meets the fearful hiker's gaze.  The woman hesitates: flee, or stay and confront her enemy?  Suddenly she remembers the Trader Joe's peach popsicle in her backpack.  She flings the popsicle at the grizzly, who approaches it wearily.  Dammit, thinks the hiker.  I forgot to open it!  The bear doesn't have opposable thumbs.  I'll have to do it myself.  The woman slowly approaches the bear.  "I'm not here to hurt you," she says quietly.  "If you'll just let me help you..."
The bear eyes the woman.  He huffs through his great nostrils but allows her to open the popsicle with her pocket knife.  "Here," says the woman.  "It's yours."
Suddenly, the bear lets out a terrifying roar.  He lunges for the popsicle, stomps on it with his massive paws, then flings it away.  When the woman tries to intercede, the bear turns on her, baring it's terrible teeth.  Every move the woman makes is the wrong one.  She is growing hysterical now - who knows what this beast is capable of?
Just then, her husband (who had been distracted by a snack break nearly an hour ago and had no doubt consumed all of the couple's provisions) arrives on the scene.  "What's this?" he asks.
"The bear!  I don't know what it wants!" the woman shrieks.  "Everything I do is wrong!  Does he want the popsicle?  Does he not want the popsicle?  What do I do?"
The man, thinking he knows how to handle a savage beast better than his timid wife, steps in.  He picks up the now-melted popsicle and hands it to the bear.

"RRROOOOOAAAARRRR!"  The bear bellows louder than before.  The couple is frozen in terror, clutching each other desperately, wondering if this will perhaps be the end of their short but happy life together.  "I love you," says the woman.
"I have an idea!" the man exclaims suddenly, setting the bear into another fit of rage.  "The trailmix!  I didn't eat it all!"  There's a first, the woman thinks, but she's willing to try anything at this point.  The man throws a few dried pineapple chunks and peanuts at the bear.  And then, as if by some strange woodland magic, the bear settles down calmly and nibbles delicately at the trailmix.
The man and the woman, still clinging to each other, hardly dare breathe.  "What does it want?" the woman whispers.  The bear pauses, sniffs the air, then resumes his snacking.
"I'm not sure," the man whispers back.  "But it seems sated."
"Do we flee?"
"We do!"
The man and the woman run as quickly as their trembling legs can carry them back into the forest, never to hike again for the rest of their lives.
The End

Okay, so that's not exactly what happened to me yesterday, but it gives you an idea of how John and I felt when Jack had his first major toddler meltdown.
I'm not sure what about that peach popsicle made him go from sweet, innocent child to shrieking, flailing monster, but I'll be damned if I ever offer him another one.  Jack has exhibited short fits of rage before, but nothing anywhere close to this.  The tantrum went on for a good eight minutes, and even John's arrival in the middle of it couldn't calm the savage beast.  There was actually a second popsicle involved (of which Jack ate about half before going berserk on me once again).  The worst part was that I truly wanted to help him, but every single attempt I made only worsened the situation.  If I tried to remove Jack from the highchair, he locked his legs together so I couldn't get him out.  If I tried to dry his tears, he turned away and sobbed into the side of the highchair.  Removing the popsicle from the tray only made the hysterics worse.  Bringing it back started the whole thing anew.  I COULD NOT WIN!  The only thing to do at that point, my friends, was laugh. 

Okay, so maybe the bear looked a little more like this...
Not long ago Sarah asked me how I deal with my problems (not that my life is particularly difficult, but we all get frustrated or stressed out from time to time).  Sarah, for example, is a venter - she will talk her problems out until she's blue in the face, and you're deaf in both ears.
John holds it in and then goes for a nice twenty-miler.  You wonder why he runs so damn much?  It's because he's married to me.
And then there's me.  I used to get depressed.  I used to internalize all of my frustrations, blaming myself and assuming there was something deeply wrong with me.
While that may still be true, I realized when I was talking to Sarah that this blog has been a savior for me in a lot of ways.  In the middle of a complete and total toddler apocalypse, I am able to think to myself, "This really freaking sucks.  But it will be great material for the blog!"  I've learned how to find the humor in what would otherwise be a totally miserable situation.  And by the time I'm done writing about all those little things that make me crazy, I feel so much better.  So thanks for letting me vent in my own way.
I'm going to need that sense of humor on Friday, when we travel to California (AGAIN!), without a seat for Jack.  And hey, at least I know if things get really rugged, I'll get a great blog post out of it.

Wish us luck!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: Weddings

In case you haven't noticed, it's wedding season.  Perhaps the whole of summer can be called "wedding season," but for some reason it seems like late August/early September is the height of the madness. 
It's hard to believe John and I celebrate seven years of marriage tomorrow.  In some ways I feel like I can't possibly be old enough to have been married for seven years, and in other ways, those seven years feel more like thirty (I think I've aged one year for every month of Jack's life).  It's amazing how two people can go through so much together, how we can grow and change as individuals and as a couple, and still be just as much in love as we were when we met ten years ago. 

August 28, 2004
To all of our friends with recent or upcoming anniversaries: Happy Anniversary!  A successful marriage is definitely something worth celebrating (whether it's with brunch at the Four Seasons or sitting at the coffee table with a flashlight and granola bars - depending on the weather).

This morning I was at the salon, and it seemed like I was surrounded by wedding chatter.  The red-headed girl next to me (who was brightening her color and planning her up-do for the big day) was something of a bride anomaly.  Most brides I've met are either desperate to lose a few last pounds before the wedding or are too nervous to eat.  But not this gal.  She had brought in a box of a dozen donuts to "share" with the salon employees, but she happily put away three donuts and a massive iced latte while I watched her from under the dryer.  Clearly no qualms about fitting into her dress there - perhaps she's banking on her Spanx?  Whatever the case, she seemed very happy, so more power to her.
Another woman had just been told her niece's wedding was canceled because of the hurricane.  I can't imagine having my wedding canceled the day before.  Now there's a woman who deserves to eat a box of donuts.
And of course, I was getting my hair done because one of my best friends, Shauna, is getting married next weekend!  I couldn't help but smile as I listened to the redhead at the salon describe every detail to her stylist, who was going to the wedding to do the bridal party's hair.  Shauna was one of my bridesmaids, and since I got married in BFE, we all did our own hair.  You can imagine what a small bathroom filled with five bridesmaids and a bride is like two hours prior to the ceremony.  Or maybe you can't.  In fact, I'm not sure you want to.  It's amazing we didn't all pass out from hairspray fumes.  The real kicker was that my mom had the massive bathroom upstairs all to herself.  But there was something special about us all helping each other in that crammed space.  I wouldn't change it for the world.
Pretty maids all in a row
Next weekend I get to watch Shauna walk down the aisle and embark on this wonderful adventure called marriage herself.  I'm so honored and excited to be a part of her big day (slightly less excited to see how Jack performs as the ring bearer - I'm envisioning a toddler running screaming down the aisle with the wedding rings in tow; but don't worry Shauna, I'm sure we'll work it out!).

Most of all, I'm so grateful for every second I've had with John, the only man in the world who would put up with my hysterics over a lost pacifier and still tell me I'm beautiful at the end of the day.  I love you so very much.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Foodaholics Anonymous

I've been thinking about doing a post on Jack's eating habits for a while now.  Originally, I was planning on focusing on his gusto for all things edible, and of course his delicious chubbiness.  But darnit if the child isn't starting to slim down.  Don't get me wrong, the toddler belly is still in full effect, and his thighs still sport their characteristic crease.  But beneath his layers of adipose tissue I'm beginning to see - dare I say it? - muscle.  Before, Jack was positively Rubenesque; he had the physique of a potsticker, all smooth and doughy.  I fear it won't be long before Jack loses his toddler fat all together and starts to resemble something slightly less Jabba the Hut and slightly more human.  Sigh.

The day those thighs stop touching will be a sad day indeed...
Despite the fact that Jack may be slimming down, his appetite is just as healthy as ever.  Unlike his parents, who have been known to devour their dinner in five minutes, Jack knows how to savor a meal.  He somehow manages to cram fistfuls of food into his mouth while simultaneously dragging out a meal for thirty minutes.  Each bite is accompanied by a hearty "Mmmm!"  Often he'll pause to contemplate his food before tasting it, marveling at the juiciness of a slice of peach or the curious shape of a pasta spiral, as if he wants to memorize it for future reference.  Either that, or he's just imagining how delicious it will taste before shoving it in his craw.

The Stages of Food Addiction:

Stage 1:  Anger
Stage 2: Denial
Stage 3: Uneasy Acceptance
Stage 4: "Hi.  I'm Jack, and I'm a Foodaholic."

Jack's appreciation for fine cuisine has only increased of late.  A true gourmand, he rarely meets a food he doesn't like, and he's willing to try just about anything.  Sometimes this is charming.  Sometimes, like when I'm trying to eat my eggplant parmesan in peace, for example, it's just freaking annoying.  I realize I'm lucky not to have a picky eater on my hands, but there are times when I wish I only had to choose between macaroni, fish sticks, or chicken fingers for dinner, instead of the whole of the culinary universe.

Jack double fisting his breakfast.
And then there's the fact that my own diet has taken second fiddle to my child's.  Yesterday, as I was preparing Jack's breakfast of scrambled egg with olive oil and truffle salt with a side of fresh blackberries, and later, as I poured myself a bowl of peanut butter puffs eaten standing up, I had to wonder what the hell has happened to my life.  I know I'm not the only parent who is so focused on her child's nutrition that she is completely neglecting her own.  Yesterday Jack ate fresh green apple slices and cheddar cheese for snack and penne with homemade pesto and kalamata olives for lunch.  It wasn't until three p.m., after I'd finished writing and worked out, that I snarfed down an instant mac n' cheese packet in record time because Jack was waking up from his nap.  This is no way to live, people!  If it weren't for my daily vitamin, I shudder to think what my iron and calcium levels would be.

Of course it's not all bad.  That penne was leftover from dinner the night before, and John and I eat plenty of fresh veggies with dinner.  But when I'm on my own during the day, and I've got a mini Mario Batali clutching to my legs and begging for "moin" ("more" in Jackanese), the truth is I tend to put my own nutrition second and focus on my butterball.  After all, who knows how much longer he'll be around.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The End

Just over an hour ago, I wrote the two words that all authors look forward to putting on paper at the conclusion of a long journey:

About ten minutes after that, there was a fairly substantial earthquake.  I'm trying not to read too much into it.

Earthquakes are scary for everyone.  If you're from California, like me, you grew up under the shadow of "the Big One," a massive earthquake that is supposedly long overdue.  It's been impending since I was in sixth grade.  If you've never experienced an earthquake before, it can be equally terrifying.  You have no idea what to expect.  And long earthquakes likes this one (approximately thirty seconds) are the worst: they give you plenty of time to contemplate what the hell you should do.  Run outside?  Find the nearest doorway?  Wake up the baby and risk disrupting his nap?!

I'm ashamed to say I stood in the doorway downstairs and prayed Jack wouldn't wake up.  It was not one of my prouder moments.

Fortunately, nothing was broken.  A few pictures fell over and my cuckoo clock (which is normally dormant) came to life at some point during the quake.  I was just grateful I wasn't on the treadmill when it happened.

I'd been planning this post for the past few days, excited to share the news that in roughly six weeks I completed a 293-page, 81,000-word rough draft.  I wasn't expecting it to coincide with the largest area earthquake in recorded history.  As the house continued to sway and I stood poised to spring upstairs to get Jack, I had to wonder if "The End" hadn't possibly taken on a far more sinister meaning. 

Fortunately, I'm not superstitious.

Writing this book has reminded me why I love writing.  If nothing comes of it, at least I can say I enjoyed writing it and I didn't waste too much time.  I plan on taking a brief hiatus before editing it and sending it to my "readers."  After that, the real work begins: editing, editing, editing; writing a query letter and searching for agents; sending out queries and preparing myself to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

I don't know if this book will be "the one."  I hope so.  I believe in it and I think the fact that I enjoyed writing it so much can only be a good sign.

Earthquakes, I'm not so sure about.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Running, the Life Ruiner

If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, then the shortest distance between John, me, and an argument is a run, straight or otherwise.  I've known this since we first started dating, and yet for the life of me I can't seem to learn my lesson.  Here's the latest.

John was lucky enough to get a second day off this week (I heart construction).  In John's defense, it was my idea to go for a family run to Old Town, grab brunch, pick up the glasses I'd just had re-lensed with plastic (the woman at the glasses store thought I was nuts for having clear plastic put in my glasses post-Lasik, but my frames were expensive and too cute to waste), and walk home.
"How many miles would it be if we took the long way to Old Town?" I asked John on Wednesday night.
"Three miles, maybe a little bit more," he assured me.

Here's the thing.  John lies about the length of our runs EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  I can't recall a single occurrence where John has accurately told me the length of a run in the ten years we've been together, despite the fact that he has a GPS and knows the length of every conceivable run in the area.  Every time, it leads to an argument when three miles into our three mile run I realize we're nowhere close to home.  And yet I believe him EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  John may be a liar, but I'm an idiot.

As we set out for our run on Thursday at 9:30 a.m., I already felt like crap.  I'd woken up some time in the middle of the night with a migraine-quality headache, but by morning it was more of a slow burn than a full-blown rager, and I ignored it.  Within thirty yards of our house John was way ahead of me, pushing Jack in the stroller (which happened to be holding my water bottle).  For a half a mile I fumed silently, watching John continue to get farther away while I felt my tongue slowly shrivel in my mouth like a raisin.  Finally I couldn't take it any longer.  "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!" I yelled.

"We're going at 9:45 pace," John hollered back.  "It's too slow!"

Now I grant you, that's pretty f-ing slow.  But I like to warm up to my 8:45s, thank you very much.  I screamed a few more obscenities and John wisely slowed his pace.  But within another mile, we were back to running 8:45 pace.  Normally, I can handle an 8:45 mile.  I'm not THAT slow, for Pete's sake.  But it was hot out there, folks.  I've been running on a subterranean treadmill for the past year, blithely churning out my four miles a day at a comfortable ten-minute-mile pace in the basement, watching Pretty Little Liars on Hulu and slurping from a water bottle, basically doing anything I can to help myself forget that I'm actually running.  It works for me, okay?  I'm not fat, I can climb a flight of stairs without getting winded (provided I'm not carrying Jack), and my clothes from college still fit.  I have accepted my state of slothliness.  Why can't John get on board?

As Old Town finally came into view, my stomach was churning and my head was pounding.  "I'm walking!" I finally shrieked, and planted myself in the middle of the sidewalk, my aching head hanging somewhere between my knees.
"But we're so close!" John said rather sadly.  We'd run 4.45 miles.  King Street was .05 miles away.  I could see how much it was killing John to walk so close to his mental finish line.

I relished every second of it.

When I'd regained the ability to function, I assured John that we'd actually passed our finish line 1.45 miles ago, so really, he had nothing to worry about.  We ate a leisurely lunch, picked up my glasses, and headed home.  By now it was almost noon.  The sun was beating down on us, and we still had two miles to go.  When I got home, I headed straight upstairs for a shower, then collapsed on the couch.  I literally had to tell myself out loud to get off the couch and go write.
For the rest of the day, I felt like a blob of green Jell-O.  It was all I could do to eke out my ten pages and crawl back upstairs to help John put Jack to bed and make a salad.  When we finally went to bed at ten, I felt like I'd been beaten over the head with my diaper bag.
I'd like to say "lesson learned."

If Running is John's mistress, she's my dorky study buddy.  She's ugly, nerdy, has acne and a bad case of halitosis, but dammit if she isn't smart.  I hate Running, but she's useful from time to time.  She's always available and she doesn't cost anything to hang out with.  Running keeps me in shape, allows me to eat the steady stream of baked goods that flows through this house, and makes me feel a little better about myself.  I need Running at the end of the day.  And I hate her for it.

John and I first ran together when we'd been dating for two or three months.  I have this little problem where my ears get really cold when I run.  It can happen when it's seventy degrees out, so I've been known to sport a TurtleFur skiing headband while out for a jog in Half Moon Bay.  In July.  For a while I wore a black beanie we dubbed "the nut," but it got lost somewhere in the wrinkles of time.  At any rate, on our very first run together, my ears started hurting.  John, who was still in love with the idea of me back then and hadn't yet realized what a pain in the ass I could be, sweetly cupped my ears with his hands for the remainder of the run.
That doesn't happen anymore.
Now, it's a miracle John doesn't take a bull-whip to me when we're out running together.  In Kingsville, when John first started getting into running, he would literally run in circles around me.  I don't think I need to tell you how obnoxious that is.  He would run backwards next to me, even walk next to me just to illustrate how slow I was going.  Then he'd do the very worst thing of all: offer to carry me for the rest of the run.  He's lucky he wasn't the one who needed carrying at the end of those runs.

By the time we moved to San Diego, it was pretty clear that running together could only hurt our relationship.  We got my parents' old treadmill and I was perfectly content to run in air conditioned comfort while John roasted on the hillside trails of Scripps Ranch.  It wasn't until after Jack was born that we dared try running together, and we found a formula that actually seems to work for us:

John runs fifty miles.
The next day, we run three miles together while John pushes Jack in the stroller.
John runs behind me so he can concentrate on my ass instead of the fact that he can run faster ninety miles into a 100-mile run.

I think it's an equation we'll be sticking to for the time being.
Or at least for the next few weeks, when I somehow forget the misery Running brings into my life and decide it would be buckets of fun to go for a nice five miler with John.

Happy Trails! 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Girls in White Dresses, Boys in Museums

On Tuesday morning John surprised me by staying home from work due to construction in his office.  Of course, Jack decided to wake up at 6:30, but I was so excited for a day with my boys.  John's plan was to take Jack to the museums while I stayed home and wrote, and while I really appreciated the thought, I decided I'd rather spend the rare day off with my boys than write all day.  So, around 8:30, we set off for the metro and D.C.

IV and V at The Castle

Our first stop was the Smithsonian Institution Building, more commonly known as "The Castle," which opens earlier than the other Smithsonians.  There's not much to see there, although I came across a piece of petrified wood (18-65 million years old or something, which John thought was a ridiculous range) that was absolutely beautiful.  Fortunately, the Natural History Museum is right across the Mall, so we headed over and stood in line for a few minutes before the doors opened at ten.  It's funny.  As a kid, that museum seemed enormous, but it's really not that big.  That elephant in the foyer is still impressive, though.  I was convinced it wasn't real because that thing is freaking HUGE, but apparently it's cast from a real elephant.  Jack enjoyed a tarantula demonstration and the hall of mammals, which is always a little depressing for me.  Those same animals have been there forever, getting dustier and dingier with age.  The little pink fairy armadillo breaks my heart every time.  But a gorilla, stuffed or otherwise, is always bound to get Jack's attention.

After that we had lunch and a cupcake from a food truck, took the metro home, and then I still got in my ten pages of writing.  Later in the evening I picked LNRB up and we headed to northwest DC for a book signing at Politics and Prose.  I read about Jennifer Close's debut novel, Girls in White Dresses, on Chick Lit is Not Dead, who gave her a rave review.  When I Googled her and saw that she had a signing coming up I invited a few girlfriends to come with me.  I bought Close's book, although I haven't read it yet, and I'm looking forward to it.  Girls in White Dresses is a collection of short stories about a group of women in their twenties and their experiences with love, friendship, and weddings.  Close has received a lot of praise for creating relatable (“We've all been there”) characters, but as I discussed with LNRB, I'm not sure if I'll be able to relate to the book.  Close was very charming and funny at her reading, so I think I'll enjoy it, but my twenties simply didn't feature that many weddings.

The cover of Girls in White Dresses.  Pretty fabulous, huh?
I was the first of my friends to get married (Close read a part of her book about this very subject, about how your friends, who have no experience with an open bar, will try to drink as much as possible in as little time as possible, how bridesmaids will go down on the dance floor, etc.  That part, I can relate to), and most of our military friends were already married when we met them.  The few girlfriends I have from high school and college have gotten married one by one over the years; I've made it to some of those weddings when money and geography permitted, and missed others.  I've never been a bridesmaid until now.  Who knows, maybe I'll read the book after Shauna's wedding and find I can relate.  We'll see.

Close reading from her debut novel, Girls in White Dresses.

Politics and Prose, which I'd never been to before, is a great little independent book store that apparently hosts lots of author signings.  I managed author signings in a past life, and I'm happy to say this one was quite lovely.  Cupcakes and Persecco were a fabulous touch, and Close, wearing an adorable white dress, was great at taking questions (I even got up the nerve to ask one – not good for my blood pressure, I tell you!), and she took a few minutes to chat with everyone who purchased a copy of her book.  I'm not one to spend twenty-five dollars on a novel these days (I've got my Kindle, the library, and a stack of paperback books from my mom to get through) but I like to think it's good author karma to support not only the author, but one of the few remaining independent book stores in the area. 

All in all, a great day of family, writing, books, and friends.  Thanks, honey! 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: Stephen King's "On Writing"

Hello all!  I apologize for the brief hiatus.  I was here, trying desperately to post, but thanks to Verizon and some apparent strike, we haven't had Internet since Saturday.  We ended up having to cancel our Verizon service and sign up with someone else (I'm sorry, but two weeks before your first available appointment, Verizon?  Unacceptable!).  Finally, we have Internet again.  And it worked out, because this Clear Modem is WAY faster than Verizon.  And I've been blogging sans Internet, so I have a few posts already typed up and ready to go.  First, my post on Stephen King's book about writing, aptly named On Writing.

As part of my effort to move on from my last two books and become a better writer in general, I’ve been doing some of the reading I probably should have done a long time ago.  Stephen King’s On Writing has been on my list for a while now, so I picked it up at the library a few weeks ago, along with Bird by Bird.

I love Stephen King.  I read The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Talisman when I was in junior high and early high school, and I’ve read Cujo, Hearts in Atlantis, The Shining, and a few others randomly over the years.  My parents have every Stephen King book and they keep most of their collection in Montana, so when we’re up there I sometimes pick one at random and read what I can while I’m there.  On Writing should have been a no-brainer (I’ve known about it for a while, probably since a few years after it came out in 2000).  I’m sorry that I waited so long to read it.

The Financial Times usually features an author interview in the weekend Arts section, and one of the questions asks, “What book do you wish you’d written?”  The Stand is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve often wished I could write something like that (a big, dramatic post-apocalyptic novel a la The Passage or The Hunger Games, which I just read in two days and will post on later), but I’ve always had this notion that Stephen King’s mind must be a really scary place to hang out, and I wouldn’t want to have to dwell there in order to write something like The Stand.  Stephen King is kind of an odd duck (he cameos in a lot of his films, and he’s sort of crazy looking - no offense, Mr. King), and yet reading On Writing, I was struck by how absolutely normal he seems.  I was sure he must have had some terrible, tragic childhood, but aside from growing up relatively poor with his brother and single mom, his childhood sounds pretty damn normal.  He started writing when he was quite young, publishing his first story in college.  That story was called “Graveyard Shift.”

While Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was very much a how-to of writing, On Writing is part memoir, part autobiography, part inspiration, and finally, a little bit of how-to.  When King started writing, the industry was vastly different.  Even when he wrote On Writing, getting an agent wasn’t the same ridiculous process it is today.  You could send out a dozen query letters back then, without even finishing your manuscript according to King (I’m not sure if that was true twelve years ago or not), and expect to get an agent.  As I mentioned in my review of The Help, it’s not at all unusual for an author to send out fifty to 100 queries before landing an agent today (and that's a bestseller, for God's sake).  So while that part of On Writing wasn’t really relevant, I enjoyed reading about King’s writing process.  He’s also really funny, so it was a quick and entertaining read.

A few bits really stuck out at me based on where I’m at in my “career” right now.  For example, King tried to sell a story without success, only to sell it ten years down the road.  “One thing I’ve noticed,” he writes, “is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘Not for us.’”  I’m hoping that someday my two drawer books (well, four, but I know the first two don’t deserve to see the light of day) will get their chance.

Another thing that struck me was King’s advice to write your first draft “with the door closed.”  In other words, don’t show your first draft to anyone until it’s complete.  This is the first time I’ve done that, and I find it to be working quite well.  I was also happy to hear that King doesn’t like writing classes, because neither do I.  “Daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open,” he says.  “The pressure to explain is always on and a lot of your creative energy, it seems to me, is therefore going in the wrong direction.”

King’s wife Tabitha is his best friend and Ideal Reader (IR).  My IR is my sister, Sarah, and not showing my novel to her this time has been tough.  According to King, an IR should provide positive but honest feedback, and Sarah does a good job of that.  But taking time out to show pages to your IR can also kill your enthusiasm for a project.  “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job…There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.  If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”  Showing my works-in-progress to Sarah is a constant temptation (Am I going in the right direction? Is it working so far?) but it can also cause me to question myself, and for now, I just want to get the thing down on paper.

There are a lot of agents and editors who advise new writers to join writing groups for critiques, rather than sending your novel to friends and family members.  But I agree with King on this subject.  On the one hand, the people close to you are probably not going to be your harshest critics.  And on the other, it puts them in an unfair position if they hate what you wrote.  But, King says, “…I don’t think an unbiased opinion is exactly what I’m looking for.  And I believe that most people smart enough to read a novel are also tactful enough to find a gentler mode of expression than ‘This sucks.’”  Stephen King also employs a sort of points system for opinions: if one person likes something and someone else doesn’t, it’s a wash (in the author’s favor).  But if more than one person makes the same comment, you have a problem that needs addressing.  Good advice, methinks.

John and Sarah are my support system through this crazy process.  As King writes of Tabitha: “Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.  They don’t have to make speeches.  Just believing is enough.”  I’m very fortunate to have both of them rooting for me in the wings.  I don’t think I could keep on slogging through this without their encouragement and support.  John isn’t a big fiction reader, so his support is more theoretical, but he also “supports” me in a very important sense by giving me the freedom to pursue my writing.  Sarah reads and loves the same books I do, which makes her an Ideal Reader in the sense that we have the same taste, but she also just “gets me” because she’s my twin and best friend.

Mostly, On Writing has helped me to trust my own “process” (I may not be a professional, but I think I do have one).  I know what works for me, and it may not be neat and tidy, but if it gets me through 200 pages in a month, I must be doing something right.  I also loved King’s commentary about novels that create worlds readers are reluctant to leave.  He cites Tolkien as an example.  “A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans…Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others.”  (Those are some of my favorite writers and novels, so I know King is writing about me here, even if he doesn’t).  It is my dream to be able to create the kinds of worlds my favorite authors do.  I know I’m nowhere near as good as they are, but it’s a goal.  And now that I’ve finally given in to my love of fantasy, I feel like the possibility is there at least.  Maybe I’ve finally found my niche.  We shall see.

Finally, I leave all aspiring authors out there with this:
“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art.  It’s the other way around.”

P.S.  I think I have tickets to see Stephen King speak next month.  Fingers crossed!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: The Help

Last night The Help premiered on the big screen, and guess who was there thirty minutes early to get a good seat (and who bought her tickets - wisely, as it turned out - early in the morning)?  That's right, me!  The theater was packed but we had perfect seats about three quarters of the way up, LNRB had chips and guacamole in her purse, and all was right with the world.

Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Emma Stone

We read The Help for book club a while ago (at least a year, I believe) and I think it's safe to say we all enjoyed it.  I liked the book - a lot - but I can't say I loved it.  I think that has more to do with the fact that the books I love are usually YA or middle grade fantasy or fables (Watership Down, The Golden Compass, The Graveyard Book), which is something I didn't really realize until a few weeks ago when I started working on my new book.  But I digress.

I was worried about this film.  I think Emma Stone is cute and I like her as an actress, but I thought it was an odd casting decision.  Eugenia (aka Skeeter) is supposed to be tall, gangly, and frizzy.  Emma Stone doesn't strike me as any of those things.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Stone was actually great in the role, and while I was a little thrown off by the way the previews seemed to pitch The Help as a comedy, the film managed to balance the humor with the heaviness of the real theme of the novel: what it was like to be a black maid working for a white woman during the civil rights movement.

See, not frizzy.  Just annoyingly cute.
Fair warning, ladies: this film is a major tearjerker.  I think I cried on a half dozen separate occasions during the two and a half hours (oh yeah, it's long, too), and LNRB was sobbing next to me.  As a mom, I am a complete sap when it comes to anything with kids, and the scenes between Aibileen (the first woman to agree to help Skeeter write her book about being a maid) and Mae Mobley (the daughter of the woman Aibileen works for) got me every time without fail.

"I is kind, I is smart, I is important."  Just pass me the whole damn box of Kleenex, will ya?

All told, this was a great film.  But the reason I'm choosing it as my "weekly inspiration" has more to do with the novel than the movie.  The Help was Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, and it almost didn't get published.  A friend sent me this interview today, and it simultaneously gives me hope and depresses the crap out of me.  Kathryn Stockett had sixty rejections before landing an agent on the sixty-first try.  "What if," she says, "I had given up at fifteen? Or forty? Or even sixty?"  Stockett admits to sneaking off to hotels to write after her daughter was born (a tactic I haven't tried but have to say I admire), to lying to friends about how many queries she sent out because no one could understand how she could continue trying after so many rejections.  I know how she feels - I haven't lied, per se, but it's not information I offer freely!  I also admire an author who admits to wanting to be published.  So many authors say, "It's not about being published!  You have to write because you love it, not because you want to be published."  To which I say, "Poppycock!  The two don't have to be mutually exclusive!"  I love to write, and I want to get published.  There's no shame in that.

Stockett joins Sara Gruen as one of my writing heroes, not necessarily because I love their books (although I do enjoy them), but because I admire their perseverance, tenacity, grit, and most of all, the fact that they can be open and honest about their failures as well as their success.  Those are the kinds of writers I admire, and the kind I hope to be one day, too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The OTHER Washington

We got back from our trip to Washington two days ago, and I'm still recovering.

Actually, it was a great trip and we had a wonderful time.  But man, was it busy.  After our two very long flights (the extra seat for Jack was a lifesaver; totally worth the money my parents paid for it), we had a two-hour drive to Manzanita, a little town on the coast, where my parents had rented a house.  My sister Elizabeth, her husband Pierre, my niece Julia, and my nephew Alex, were all there waiting for us, along with Roscoe, my parents' dog.  We had dinner and I got a chance to catch up with Elizabeth, who is an aspiring author as well.  We have a lot in common and I wished we'd had more time to catch up, but she and the rest of her family left the next morning for a camping trip (still waiting to hear how that turned out!).

Jack and Roscoe enjoy Sesame Street together.

On Thursday we went to the beach, which was freezing cold, but beautiful.  We had to camp out between some sand dunes because it was really windy, but Jack loved playing in the sand and I collected some lovely black stones (there was no sea glass to be had, unfortunately).

Manzanita beach

That night my mom and dad stayed with Jack so John and I could go to dinner.  We went to an adorable little restaurant in Cannon Beach called Newman's, which had about ten tables and really excellent food.  At the end of the meal, the waitress handed me an envelope with our name on it (my parents had kindly picked up the tab for us), and I opened it and exclaimed, "It's from Chris Harrison!  If we choose to forgo our individual rooms..."

The waitress thought it was funny, anyway.

Adorable house that I want.

On Friday John and I drove in to Portland to return our rental car and grab some lunch.  John, the intrepid Yelper, found a place called PBJ's that serves nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Yum!  I really love Portland - what a great vibe, and just the right size for a city I think.  I would live there in a heartbeat.  Alas, I'm pretty sure there's no embassy in Portland.  Drats.
My parents picked us up at the airport and we grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Longview.  I was very excited when I saw the sign above the door that promised us a Mexican fiesta with real sand, but alas, that wasn't until the following weekend.  Jack enjoyed his cup of salsa and platter of beans, and I enjoyed a much-needed margarita.

Grandpa and Jack at the park (wearing his awesome Red Dog Photo Blog shirt - thanks Mark!)
Saturday morning we grabbed some breakfast and my mom dropped me off at the Amtrak station.  I got to spend two and a half glorious hours alone on a train, and I'm proud to say I got to page 140 of my book while I was away, thanks to the train rides (and the fact that John sat next to Jack on the plane).  I arrived in Seattle to the smiling faces of some of my best and oldest friends: Shauna, the bride-to-be, Sara, and Kathryn, all Foxfield buddies from junior high through high school and beyond.  We had some time to catch up at Shauna's house and a couple of wineries before we checked into a hotel to get ready for our evening of bachelorette debauchery.

I have never felt older in my life.

We had a really good time, actually, going out to dinner, then making our way to three different clubs.  I didn't drink much, mostly because I'm not twenty-two anymore and also because I knew I had to get up in the morning to catch my train back.  And while I loved seeing my friends, meeting most of the bridesmaids (who I will see again in a few weeks at Shauna's wedding!!), being told by a random guy that Sara, Kathryn, and I "totes" need to dance more, and sharing a hotel room with six drunk girls and a giant inflatable penis, I was sort of relieved to be back with my family.  I just can't party like I used to (and we all know how wild I was back in the day).

Grandma, Jack, and a bronze dog.
When I got back to Kelso we went to my mom's barn so I could meet her new horse, Maestro.  He is absolutely adorable and I hope I get to ride him some day (preferably when I've had more than five hours of sleep).  I even got to say hi to Timmy, my mom's giant-ass warhorse, who was happy enough to see me until I was petting his head and he touched the electric fence with his nose, giving us both a jolt I could have done without.  Neither of us was very happy after that.

"Cooterville," on the way to Manzanita.  I "totes" would have gone in this place with Sarah.
And then, as vacations must, it came to an end.  We left on Monday morning and got home around eleven p.m.  It was a whirlwind, but it was wonderful.  I quite like the other Washington.

Thanks Grandma and Grandpa, we had a blast!

Can I have a bronze cocker spaniel?  Pleeeeeease?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mommy Resume

While changing Jack's diaper today, I started to think about all of the new skills I've developed as a mommy.  And I'm not just talking about the ability to apply diaper cream, sing Old McDonald, and change the box of wipes while simultaneously solving Fermat's Last Theorem.  It's funny, because for many of the stay-at-home moms I know, one of our biggest fears is that our resumes will become stale, that by the time we re-enter the work place, we will have become obsolete.  But in reality, we are adding new and valuable skills into our repertoire every day.  So I have decided to update my resume a bit, taking into account all of my new accomplishments and capabilities.  I call it "The Mommy Resume."

Mara Rae
Mommy at Large

Job History:
Dec. 2009-present
Mother of Jack

Daily Responsibilities Pertaining to Toddler:
Diaper changing
Toddler tooth-brushing
Preparation of suitably delicious and nutritious toddler fodder
Feeding and follow-up cleaning of toddler
Dressing of toddler
Extensive knowledge of nursery rhymes, cartoon anthems, and the ability to ad lib as needed (with a particular focus on replacing any name or animal with the word "Jack")
Playing with toddler
Reading to toddler (to include "voices" where applicable)
Bathing of toddler (and occasional toddler "grooming," including nail-trimming, hair combing, nose and ear cleaning, and the application of lotion and/or sunscreen)

Hypnotizing toddler into sleep-like trance
Keeping toddler from harming himself or others

Daily Responsibilities Pertaining to Keeping the Household From Turning into an Episode of Hoarders:
Picking up of toys
More dishes
Grocery shopping
Emptying the diaper pail without the aid of a hazmat suit
More laundry

Additional Skills:
Maintaining sanity while toddler repeats single word in monotone ad nauseum (akin to the seagulls in Finding Nemo: "Mine?  Mine?  Mine?")
Translation skills (and fluency in Jackanese)
Highly developed sense of empathy (Extends to stuffed animals, particularly those with whiskers)

SpongeBob Square Pants (animated sponge)
"Unny" (stuffed rabbit)
"Guys" (cartoon characters on John's pajama pants)

Okay, so a few of those things wouldn't necessarily come in handy at work, but I really do believe that motherhood is the hardest job of all time, and it can only improve an employee's ability to multi-task, focus under pressure, and prioritize.  Being a mom requires loyalty, dedication, stamina, and drive.  I don't know a single employer who doesn't value those traits in a prospective employee, and I think it's about time that people start to realize that "taking time off of work" to be a mom is anything but.

Seriously, why haven't we unionized?  Power to the Mommies!

Weekly Inspiration: Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"

I apologize to my small but loyal following of three readers.  I have been trying to post several times a week, but alas, the fates were conspiring against me this past week.  Jack has been waking up screaming from his naps (Nightmares? Night terrors?  Gas?!  I have no idea!) and refusing to go back to sleep, so my writing time was cut short.  I'm also deeply entrenched in my new novel (currently on page 77 - or 22,000 words) so I've been using any time I have to work on it.  But I've been meaning to write this post on Bird by Bird for a while now, so with the help of a trusted babysitter - aka Sesame Street - I'm going to attempt it...

As far as formal education in writing goes, I am decidedly lacking.  I took one journalism class my final semester in college, which inspired me to pursue a career in journalism after I finished my Master's degree, and I took a travel writing class at the UC San Diego Extension that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I've never taken a class in fiction writing.  In fact, my first attempt at fiction (other than during childhood) was the novel I wrote in 2003-04.  I've also read very few books on writing, probably because I'm terrified to learn all of the things I should be doing, and all of the things I'm doing wrong.  But my friend Alexis had recently recommended Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and quite serendipitously, a book club member chose Lamott's Imperfect Birds for book club this month.  So I headed to the library and picked up both books, along with Stephen King's On Writing.  Time for a little education.

Over all, I really enjoyed Bird by Bird.  Lamott is a very funny writer, although her books tend to deal with serious subject matter (Imperfect Birds is the story of a mother, step-father, and daughter in the Bay Area struggling with the daughter's drug use, sexual promiscuity, and lies.  It reminded me a lot of Beautiful Boy, actually, which is non-fiction but takes place in the same general place and time; both books are heartbreaking and absolutely terrifying for parents).
One of the first lines in the book that really stood out to me was actually an E. L. Doctorow quote: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  This is something I've been trying to explain to my "editor," Sarah, but haven't been able to put nearly as succinctly.  Sarah is under the impression that I need to outline every detail of my novels before I begin.  While I do have to give Sarah credit in the case of my new novel (when you're writing fantasy, you'd better have all the rules of your fantasy world laid out ahead of time, or things are going to get all kinds of crazy later on), I still agree with this basic principal, which ties into what Lamott calls the "shitty first draft."  Sometimes it's more important to write - to write ANYTHING, even if it's terrible - than to plan and outline until you're blue in the face.  There is something to be said for writing for writing's sake.  As she goes on to say: "What people somehow (inadvertently, I'm sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here -- and, by extension, what we're supposed to be writing."

Coincidentally, after I'd written my post about the metro, I came across this paragraph in the book:  "So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill ... Instead of feeling panicked by these lowlifes on the subway, you notice all the details of their clothes and bearing and speech.  Maybe you never quite get to the point where you think, 'Ah--so that's what a gun looks like from this end.'  But you take in all you can, as a child would, without the atmospheric smog of most grown-up vision."

I also really appreciated Lamott's advice on whom you should send your novel to before you submit it to an agent or editor.  Sending your work to other people is very scary, even if it's someone you know very well and whose opinion you value.  Sarah and I got into a little argument while I was outlining the new novel, after I'd sent her something I was pretty excited about, and she immediately began our follow-up discussion with, "Well, here's what I would have done."
Here's Lamott's take on the situation: "I know what a painful feeling it is when you've been working on something forever, and it feels done, and you give your story to someone you hope will validate this and that person tells you it still needs more work.  You have to, at this point, question your assessment of this person's character and, if he or she is not a spouse or a lifelong friend, decide whether or not you want them in your life at all.  Mostly I think an appropriate first reaction is to think that you don't.  But in a little while it may strike you as a small miracle that you have someone in your life, whose taste you admire (after all this person loves you and your work), who will tell you the truth and help you stay on the straight and narrow, or find your way back to it if you are lost."
It also helps if that person has their work shot down by someone they trust and admire right after she has just shot your work down.  I now understand that Sarah was just trying to make my novel as good as it can be; Sarah now understands that there are ways to tell people you think their work needs improvement while still being sensitive to that person's feelings.  Mostly, I am grateful that I have a small group of kind, intelligent, and generous friends and family members willing to read my material.

Lamott is also a parent, so her commentary on toddlers seemed particularly relevant.  "Your work as a writer, when you are giving everything you have to your characters and to your readers, will periodically make you feel like the single parent of a three-year-old, who is, by turns, wonderful, willful, terrible, crazed, and adoring.  Toddlers can make you feel as if you have violated some archaic law in their personal Koran and you should die, infidel ... But they are always yours, your books as well as your children ... Your three-year-old and your work in progress teach you to give.  They teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else.  This is probably the secret to happiness.  So that's one reason to write.  Your child and your work hold you hostage, suck you dry, ruin your sleep, mess with your head, treat you like dirt, and then you discover they've given you that gold nugget you were looking for all along."

It seems fitting that as I'm typing this Jack is literally banging on a drum on top of my treadmill.  We gave up on Sesame Street a long time ago.

Lamott offers this little pearl of wisdom regarding turning real people into characters in your novels without being sued for libel:
"If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work.  And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth."

The only thing I disliked about Bird by Bird was Lamott's discussion of the disappointment that can come with being a published author.  I know Lamott is trying to prepare her students (she teaches a writing class, and Bird by Bird is basically that class in book form), to tell them that if they are writing for the promise of fortune and fame, that they are most likely going to be disappointed.  She goes on to talk about her own personal experiences with publishing, the highs and lows, how you may have a couple of book parties or good reviews, but along with all that comes the negative reviews and the lack of anticipated recognition and praise.  I understand all this, I really do.  But it brings me back to my recent post about people only having negative things to say when your baby takes its first steps.  Yes, it may have a lot of negative consequences, but you know what would be far, far worse than that?  If your child never walked at all.  And I'm willing to bet that Lamott would take all the crap that may come along with being a published author over never getting published at all in a heartbeat.  And who knows, one of the people in her class (or reading her book) COULD go on to be the next big thing.  They could get a million dollar publishing deal and receive glowing reviews, and getting their novel published could actually be the best thing that ever happens to them.  So please, Anne, don't rain on my parade!  Let me have my dream that getting published will be an amazing experience if I'm ever lucky enough for it to happen to me.  If it sucks, well, then I can write a book about that one day, too.