Busy Signal

Aside: I’ve put 200 miles on my car this week chauffeuring kids to camps. In my spare time, I’ve been revising my memoir manuscript and shopping antiques with alexandradesignfinds.com. Yesterday my blog post deadline came and went. Trust me when I say that I’m collecting material for future posts, but for now, I’m exhausted. My blog stats and comments tell me that I’m trending with the retired women who know and love me, as well as with random people from Brazil, Ghana, and Italy who stumble upon this site using God-only-knows-what search terms. While it seems a little early in Off the Page’s life for this, I’m falling back on “Best of the Blog” in hopes that my readers will have some time to catch up on their job: namely reading, liking, and sharing my posts, so that I can become a famous writer whose inbox spills over with offers by literary agents for representation. Get to work, people!

Of Paint and Writing

Big Cheese

SUP?!?!

Under Our Canopy

If You Loan a Writer a Car…

phone

 

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Happy Pioneer or Pie-N-Beer Day, Utah!

When I realized that my self-imposed blog post deadline fell on July 24, I had to pay homage to Pioneer Day, or, as the Gentiles call it, “Pie-N-Beer Day.”

Aside: Saints = Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormons; Gentiles = non-Mormons. My mother claims that Utah is the only place where a Jew can be considered a Gentile. This title lumped a lot of us together: Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’i, ski bums….

July 24 is a lightning rod of sorts for Utahans. My mother used to lament that it’s a bigger holiday than 4th of July. Although I haven’t lived in the state for over 15 years, the date is still seared in my brain. I spent much of my young adulthood rebelling against a celebration of someone else’s ancestors trekking across the country. One year I marked the date by consummating a relationship. In 1997, I worked in a gift shop inside This is the Place State Park where 50,000 people converged to greet a throng of Saints who were re-enacting the historic arrival of Brigham Young’s crew. The bonnet-clad crowd consisted of 45 horseback riders and 380 walkers with 61 wagons and 9 handcarts. While customers bought commemorative Christmas ornaments in the shape of handcarts, I celebrating the occasion with the purchase of a souvenir shot glass that pictured the Salt Lake City LDS Temple.

Aside: If this religious/cultural war intrigues you, consider finding me a literary agent and publisher so you can read my memoir Outside the Temple Doors.

After I left the state, some Gentiles came up with the great idea to dub July 24 “Pie-N-Beer Day.” Consuming a slice of pizza pie and a cold beer on that day is akin to giving Mormons the middle finger.

A week before this auspicious state holiday an ad popped up on Facebook with a personalized shirt for me to purchase. It read, “Just a Utah Girl in a Virginia World.” What is a “Utah Girl?” Is the implication that I like a slower paced life and wide-open spaces? Or is it that I constantly fight against what I perceive as the dominant culture? In any case, it’s clear that the overall sentiment is that I don’t quite fit in. Which is true, but I’d never wear a shirt advertising that fact.

Aside: If you ask my close friends, they would probably say that they love my snarkiness. They’ve become my friends in response to my rather abrasive taglines: “I’m from Utah, but I’m not Mormon” or “I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t do the PTA thing” or “I belong to a Christian church, but I’d never vote for a candidate from the Christian right.”

In a month, I will set foot back in the Beehive State to visit family and friends. I’ll bring my two kids and husband along. We have tickets to tour the newly renovated Ogden City LDS Temple. While living in Virginia, I’ve developed friendships with some really lovely people who happen to be Mormon. For me, being a Utah girl living in a Virginia world means that I will have to weigh my clothing options carefully and curb my salty mouth because I now care about offending some really wonderful friends. With my kids in tow, I’ll try to instill a respect for diversity in our world.

Aside: Rest assured, dear reader, that after the tour I’ll have a beer while eating some pizza pie; perhaps, I’ll raise a glass of Polygamy Porter or Latter-Day Stout to the founders of the great state. After all, you can take the girl out of Utah, but you can’t take Utah out of the girl.

polygamy-porter

 

Under Our Canopy

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney.

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney and Lyn Fiscus.

Six Saturdays each summer for the past 3.5 summers, I have sat poolside for 5 hours in some of the most humid Virginia weather to cheer on my daughter and her teammates. Or at least, I watch and cheer when I remember that I’m at a swim meet.

Swim meets involve approximately 200 swimmers ages 6-18 competing in four different strokes plus a couple of team relay races. Add to that a parent or two per swimmer, plus a sibling here and there who comes to raid the concession stand. That’s a minimum of 300 people at one public pool when heat indexes occasionally reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soccer and baseball moms don’t understand. “It’s so long, and she swims for what, four minutes total?” True.

Aside: Maybe it’s the literary snob in me, but I prefer to compare my daughter’s individual sport to reading a character-driven book. You’re not in it for the non-stop action; you’re getting a snippet of action here interspersed with some quiet moments.

There has to be a selfish angle to enduring this kind of activity because I am one of the laziest moms I know. Maybe I’m trying to live vicariously through my daughter; I did envy that friend in grade school who swam for a team at the country club.

Aside: Let me clarify that our swim organization is as far from a country club as one can get. I once overheard moms in a neighboring suburb scoff at our rinky-dink outdoor pools. My neighborhood pool reminds me of watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island on a huge television that was really a piece of furniture with rabbit-ear antenna and a V-hold knob. I love it.

More likely, I’m committed to this experience because I’ve made some wonderful women friends in suburbia, a place that can be treacherous in its competitive parenting. Believe me when I say that I tried NOT to make friends at the pool. I went in all “I’m not from here”; “I don’t do the PTA thing”; and “this is totally a cult.” Snarky is a label often leveled against me.

Aside: This strategy is not working so well in the search for a literary agent and publisher for my memoir. Apparently, an author is supposed to brand herself without using “anti” as a prefix.

The cynic in me ascribes my circle of swim team friends to our family’s purchase of a canopy tent, which we haul to meets, set up and take down. It sounds like a credit card commercial, but the $99 price tag cannot compete with the camaraderie it has fostered. Among 300 people, we stake a claim to a small patch of cement pool deck and create our own family room.

Aside: In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jordan Baker observes: “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate.” Indeed. I’ve been knocked up twice (in the literary sense) under that canopy: first when a fellow mom encouraged me to share my growing-up in Utah stories; second, when I reflected on how my poolside friendships could shape the story line for a present-day thread.

While I’m spouting aphorisms regarding the communal nature of swim meets, I might as well use another that pertains to swim meets: “It takes a village.”

Aside: My loyal readers will note that this is the second reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton in my blog posts. No, she hasn’t phoned me to ask for my support in 2016. But she will….

Fellow moms pack food for my son who is too young to join the team, but eats his weight in snacks at each meet. Dads armed with Sharpies write heat and lane numbers on kids’ arms. A fine mist of sunscreen coats everyone within a 10 ft. radius.

Aside: One of my favorite David Sedaris essays recounts his experience on swim team as a kid. I’m not going to link to it here because it’s so good that you’ll read it and stop reading mine.

So far, my daughter is still into this whole experience. She eschews summer camps in favor of attending daily morning practices. She collects ribbons for the scrapbook that we’ve never gotten around to starting. She shivers in a towel after warms up, waiting for her first event to start. One day, she may figure out that this isn’t so fun. My contingency plan involves private swim lessons for my son in hopes that I can guarantee myself at least four more summers under our canopy.

Big Cheese

To celebrate my massive readership for Off the Page (Thanks to my twelve commenters), I succumbed to the desire to shop with the masses in a members-only warehouse last Friday. Now that I’ve paid my $55 annual fee, I can stroll through the aisles with abandon wondering if pallets of 72-roll toilet paper might lose their footing and come toppling down to crush me.

I come from modest roots. My people steer clear of “big cities” and get “cleaned up to go into town.” My mother drives her truck an additional ten miles to get cheap gas. We are the target audience for these types of megastores.

Aside: I am getting to the writing part. Notice that I used “audience” not “consumers of cheap shit.”

Nonetheless, it had been several years since I belonged to one of these places. Proximity is a big issue. Five years ago, my family moved from a suburb where construction companies were clear-cutting forests to build these behemoths in favor of living in a closer-in suburb where mature trees threaten to flatten houses during derecho storms. At our former residence, we could hand a Miller Light to the next-door neighbor from our deck. Currently, we can forget we have neighbors while we sit on our deck sipping IPA.

Aside: we don’t actually consume beer that often, but my in-laws do. They are lovely people, who have been married for nearly 50 years now. When buying food to prepare for their visits, I have noted that my MIL likes Miller Light and French’s yellow mustard; my FIL prefers IPA (the more expensive, the better) and Grey Poupon.

Now, back to the shopping spree… I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock while maneuvering my oversized shopping cart across concrete floors. Everything looked smaller under the three-story ceiling: one 32” HDTV resembled the 13” black and white set with rabbit ears that I took to college. A 1½ lbs. brick of Gorgonzola cheese looked like reasonable quantity to add to my salads.

Gorgonzola WedgeRight

Amazingly, my haul for the first trip came in just under $100. As I drove home with my wild caught salmon, fancy rice crackers, California-grown apricots, organic chocolate milk, and hunk of cheese, I realized that I hadn’t seen a book section in the store. Had I missed it? Was it tucked away in some corner I hadn’t found yet? What if they didn’t have such a section?

Aside: My reading material usually arrives in brown boxes at my front door because I am too lazy to drive to the few remaining bookstores housed in strip malls. I’m mildly embarrassed by this lapse in literary snobbery.

Lamenting the chance to see dozens of Hillary Clinton’s 600+ page memoir stacked neatly on a table, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in joining.

Thinking about memoirs, I reflected on my own manuscript. Part of wooing literary agents and publishers involves convincing these people who work on commission that my words can put groceries on their tables or yachts in their slips.

There are essentially two categories for traditional publishing:

  1. Small presses that print under 3,000 copies of a book, usually in hardback, with a hefty price tag and place them for sale in fancy bookstores. For foodies, Bouteque de Fromage would be the equivalent of a small press.
  2. Large presses print no fewer than 30,000 copies of a book, usually in paperback, and expect to sell these in bulk for cheap prices. Think individually wrapped American cheese slices.

Aside: You’d think that people in the literary world could come up with more creative titles than “small presses” and “large presses,” but who am I to judge?

Whether you love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton can sell books. Enough books to help her climb out of debt and finance not one, but possibly two trips to Iowa in hopes of trading in her FLOTUS hat for a bigger POTUS one.

This will come as a shock to some of my loyal fans, but I am no Hillary Clinton.

Numbers wise, I’d be lucky to sell 3,000 copies of Outside the Temple Doors. I have fewer than 300 FB friends even after “friending” everyone I know from high school.

If reality television is any gauge, freak shows have mass appeal. I could align my Mormon characters with the small rogue sect represented on Big Love and convince my mother to grow a scraggly beard like Phil Robertson. That would sell books! Believe me it’s tempting. True, I’d have to discard the storyline about my journey from prejudice to acceptance, but hey, celebrating diversity is really overrated, right?

Aside: It’s easy to be snarky about the New York Times bestseller list when you’re sitting in an ivory tower earning a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. I once attended a session at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference wherein the speaker advised us to “Look around the room because these are the people who are going to buy your books.”

I’m not really highbrow enough to get all of the writers who hold MFAs to buy my $25 hardback memoir even if I sign copies at a swanky book launch. I’m not the gourmet wheel at some fancy London cheese shoppe, but I’m also not the individually wrapped American slices.

Aside: I apologize in advance to anyone whose book has ever sold over 30,000 copies, especially anyone who might one day write a blurb on the back cover of my memoir. I love you, Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls and Cheryl Strayed!

I need small numbers at a cheap price, or at least a Medium Press for that chasm between <3,000 and >30,000. I’m a hybrid or a Goldilocks.

“What about self-publishing?” you ask. Hold that thought. I won’t consider that route until I have a respectable amount of rejection letters. Also, I’m out of words for this week’s post.

Post Which Requires You to Read to the End

So I did this brave thing on May 4, 2014. I know you’re tired of hearing about how marvelous Listen to Your Mother DC was. You’ve seen the photos on Facebook and are right on the verge of blocking me from your friend list. I swear I won’t once gush about how marvelous the women in the cast are (at least, not after this sentence). Instead, I’d like to tell you about backstage (B.S.) and the days that led up to the two hour period, a.k.a. before backstage (B.B.S.).

To bring you up to speed, I wrote this essay called “Sick Mama” back in January when audition calls were posted. It began as a letter of apology to my daughter for having rheumatoid arthritis because chronic illness doesn’t really allow you to be 100% most days. During the audition, director Stephanie Stearns Dulli smiled and asked, “If you are cast in the show, would you be willing to edit your piece?” I nodded, desperate for approval. “Letter format works in many instances, but not here.” She also said some nice things and reassured me that I’d hear back within a week. I left unsure about the whole thing. I’d “read” the faces of the director and the producer, Kate Coveny Hood, during my five-minute monologue. I’d noted the “IF” qualifier in Stephanie’s statement. All positive signs, and yet I braced for yet another rejection.

Aside: When you write and submit your work to literary journals, you develop a thick skin. Over the past six years, I’ve sent a total of 16 pieces to nearly 100 different journals, racking up exactly 333 rejections and 3 acceptances. The most elite magazines accept less than 1% of unsolicited manuscripts. I have greater odds of dying due to accidental poisoning by exposure to noxious substances than getting published in some of these bad boys.

But, Kate and Stephanie said, “yes” to me and to my piece. At that phase in the writing process, “Sick Mama” was a mere tadpole. Over the next two months, that sucker morphed into a frog. First, it lost all of the “you” references to my daughter along with the formal salutations. Each time I rehearsed reading it aloud, I cut unnecessary words. Next, the thing grew freaking legs: I worked on my inflection; I listened to Stephanie’s coaching tips. By deadline time for the cast reading book, that essay was a giant bullfrog!

Meanwhile, off the page, I anticipated the big show by obsessing over how I weigh 20 lbs. more than I did before having kids (B.K.). Shopping and fashion are not really my thing. I’m not so bad that friends might one day target me for a fashion intervention on What Not To Wear (Is that show even still on?). I know enough to realize that it is difficult to “hide” twenty extra pounds, especially when jowls are involved. (Jessica Rapisarda, you can’t Spanx those.) Anxiety over body image + aversion to shopping = a great deal of existential angst.

Packages arrived in the mail; packages were taken to UPS to return. Five day B.B.S., I found myself sharing a handicapped-accessible changing room at the Nordstrom’s Rack in Gaithersburg, MD with fellow cast member Melissa Scholes Young and nearly 20 dresses.

Aside: Melissa not only has a bazillion writing credits and is under 40 years old, but she also wears a size -12. Melissa runs to manage her stress; I nap to improve my disposition when I’m in pain. Melissa could be a Victoria’s Secret model; I could be a body double for Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’d hate her if she wasn’t such a great friend. And if I didn’t believe that someday I might ride her coattails to literary greatness.

Two days B.B.S., I resorted to taking selfies in dressing room mirrors to assess how I would look on stage. With just over 24 hours B.B.S., I began taking selfies and sending them to Melissa for advice. My husband still doesn’t know how many store credit cards I opened in search of the perfect outfit. The OUTFIT ended up being a turquoise blouse to go along with the Easter-egg theme our cast had going (Kate and Stephanie, I’m really not still bitter about the set being something other than a black curtain.) AND a pair of Capri pants and shoes from my own closet.

Aside: I’m an English teacher, for fuck’s sake. I know when I’ve illegally wedged a huge parenthetical sentence inside an already grammatically challenging sentence. It’s for dramatic effect, so just try to diagram that one. When Oprah asked Toni Morrison about the difficulty in reading her books, Morrison replied, “It’s called READING.”

The big morning came. I shoved my family out the door to pray for me in church since I’d taken the Lord’s name in vain at least a dozen times while getting them ready to go. An empty house with two hours to prepare for B.B.S.! I tweezed, waxed, shaved, bleached, powdered, straightened, buffed, yodeled, and packed my wardrobe options.

In the car en route to the theater, I occurred to me that I had not once in the last few days rehearsed my piece. Multi-tasking is not my strong suit. I prefer to obsess over one thing at a time. Furthermore, my concentration skills were already strained by driving while listening to my GPS. Nonetheless, the first few paragraphs of my essay leaped out of my mouth, give or take a few minor omissions.

For two hours B.S., I joked with cast members, modeled two different clothing options for Melissa, limited myself to one glass of champagne instead of the bottle I wanted to consume because Stephanie insisted that we not get stumbling drunk before going on, and did whatever Kate told me to do.

Aside: If you have been reading this post carefully, you should remember that I started by saying that I did something brave. You probably assumed that reading my essay on stage was the brave thing to which I alluded. You’d be only partially correct. Read on. (Yes, I did just end a sentence with a preposition.)

At one point, I stood half-naked in a dressing room and decided to wear flats instead of heels.

Aside: This might not seem significant, but flats are far less painful for my joints than heels. I wear heels when I want to kick ass and take hostages, like when an entire room of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition students threatens to mutiny against my research assignment that we didn’t start until AFTER the AP exams in May.

Waiting in line to walk on stage, I only recognized the first two layers of brave: 1) disclosing my medical condition and resulting parenting inadequacies and 2) taking the stage to read about them in front of friends and strangers. The third layer, the most profound, took time to unfold. In the days and weeks following the performance, I came to understand that by choosing flats I trusted my words; I didn’t need heels to stand tall.

Aside: If you’ve made it this far, Dear Reader, you are waiting for my big conclusion. If you are an English teacher, you are reading to pounce on it, circle it with a red pen, and write: “thesis statements should come in the introductory paragraph.” Chill. I’ve nicely enumerated my points in the previous paragraph. Consider that my outline.

The thing about writing is that the reader (the audience) doesn’t get to see what happens off the page, behind the curtains, back in the bowels of dressing rooms with flat irons, discarded hangers, way too much perfume wafting around, and a pair of black heels left in a white shopping bag.

I accidentally started a blog last week when I couldn’t remember the difference between posts and pages on my author website. Now, I’ve written my way into a title for this bastard: “Off the Page” is about the writing process and my sincere search for a literary agent to represent my memoir manuscript in the hopes that someday I might stand on stages wearing flats while reading my own words.

Aside: I refuse to start my post with this last sentence because it’s about the process of getting here.

Aside to the Aside: If you missed my previous post in which I pay homage to Katie Couric and compare my writing process to whacking at a piñata, scroll down. If you missed Lauren Boston’s literary blog hop in which she discloses that her secret writing process involves hitting on married men in coffee shops, click here