SUP?!?!

My kids are ridiculously athletic. Me, not so much…

Aside: Twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband didn’t believe that I couldn’t ride a bike. While visiting his family in Wisconsin, he insisted that I borrow his sister’s bike for a spin around the neighborhood. I can “ride” in the sense that I can balance and push the pedals with my feet, so he was probably feeling quite smug as we coasted down his parents’ cul de sac onto a neighborhood street. He was likely basking in his victory when we turned left onto a street that actually connected to a street with real traffic. What he didn’t understand is that my brain freezes up when I am on a bike. When he hollered from behind that I should hang a left into the strip mall, he did not instruct me to yield to the on-coming car. Luckily, the car came to a dead stop; I did not.

I’m the only member of the family who doesn’t own a bike. It’s better that way. However, I do occasionally feel guilty about this parental shortcoming, which might explain why I suggested Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP) as a family activity.

Like all of my ideas, this sounded great initially. The problem with kids is they actually listen when you wish they wouldn’t. Once the suggestion left my mouth, it was a pinky-promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye affair.

Aside: Brainstorming is a great practice for a writer. I can turn ideas out on the page, test drive them for a paragraph or so, and turn off the ignition. This post, for instance, could have been about my return trip to Costco, or any of the conversations that I had with friends last week while eating Mediterranean food, sipping mimosas, or inhaling Korean pastries. Coincidentally, my three friends are all Kristinas, or more accurately, Kristina, Kristina, and Christina. But alas, the subject is SUP….

I see fun family activities as a way to keep my children from beating the crap out of each other and as a means for me to earn parental currency. For example, the next time my daughter complains about going to church, I can remind her that we skipped one Sunday and went SUP-ing.

Aside: I realize that line could cause an epic backfire. I’ll make sure to assess the situation before I bust that out.

The impending SUP outing was a carrot to dangle in front of my children. It’s rough when Santa Claus is holed up at the North Pole making toys in June. Any good bribe/threat requires an immediacy factor. “Do I need to cancel that SUP lesson for Sunday?” I asked anytime my children looked at me the wrong way.

The problems didn’t really arise until Sunday morning when my son woke up everyone at 6 a.m. yelling, “SUP!?!?” My brain registered, “Holy shit this is really happening. What was I thinking?” Images of me falling into the lake filled my head. Embarrassing myself in front of my family was one thing, but the thought of making a buffoon out of myself in front of our neighbor, the SUP instructor, unsettled me. What a bad idea…

Aside: I feel this way at some point while drafting an essay, or this post. Writers often claim that a muse visits them. That’s bullshit. Part of the creative process involves self-loathing: stepping back from your creation with a critical eye as if to say, “What the fuck did I do?” In this way, writing and mothering are very similar.

I did what any good parent and writer would do: I bullied myself into following through. The kids will be so disappointed if you back out. Then I reassured myself: our SUP instructor also volunteers as a certified adaptive snowboard instructor. Maybe he’s had a skier whose artificial leg came off while attached to a board. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to have your prosthesis slip away on a black diamond run?

Aside: No offense to those with physical challenges. I’d throw my own mother under the bus to make myself feel better. For my literary readers, please note how Flannery O’Connor likely influenced this rogue limb fantasy.

Thus fortified, I drove our family to the lesson and listened intently when Steve Gurney explained that kids get a kick out of seeing their parents fall into the water. I interrupted, “When do they do that? When they’re trying to stand up?” My neighbor/SUP instructor said, “No, it most often involves them trying to help one of their kids.” With that comment, he offered me the magic pill: don’t try to help your children.

During the 90-minute excursion, my motto became “Each person for herself.” The children had life vests. Steve hung back with my son. My husband stayed close to our daughter. I practiced knelling, standing, paddling and balancing enough to avoid a dip in a rather murky lake.

Aside: According to a fiction professor in my MFA program who adhered to Chekov’s rules for short stories, a writer cannot introduce a gun without having it go off before the end. Sometimes real life follows these rules for fiction writing, but mostly not. This is one of those rare instances.

As I climbed off my SUP and crossed the rocky beach on bare feet, I breathed a sigh of relief. Safely on land, I watched my son flailing in a shallow mix of water and mud near some cattails. Instead of playing the buffoon, I got to calmly wade in to extract him. Win-win.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

To Be Continued

Aside: When last you tuned in, I was awaiting Brother while staring at the sublime shade of blue that perfectly complements my fake Monet painting. Here it is just for Melissa Scholes Young, who wants pictures:

Now, back to the metaphor: Writing groups can make or break a piece. Choose wisely.

Aside: I should be quoting some famous researcher here whom I studied during Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2002. Believe me, there is ample research, but I can’t drag my lazy ass down to my teaching files to look up names and quotes for these writing giants. Apologies to Bill McCabe, one of the instructors, and Pete Pazmino, esteemed editor for Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. They tried.

In truth, I learned just as much from my writing group at the summer institute. A woman in my cohort, whom I’ll call Bonita, latched onto my father issues and adopted them. For her, responding to my writing was less about craft and more about content.

Aside: I no longer feel the need to recount my power struggles with my father on the printed page. This has nothing to do with his recent inheritance. First, I exhausted that topic before I wrote anything saleable. Second, I became a parent with my own power struggles. Also, Bonita readily admitted to tripping on acid during much of her young adulthood, so cross that off your list of qualities to look for in writing group members.

Another group member, whom I’ll call Nick Maneno since that’s his name, taught me far more. I read aloud a piece that identified three classifications for married women: dual income no kids (D.I.N.K.s), minivan mamas, and cocktail hostesses. The piece elicited considerable laughter, yet Nick saw kernels of greater things to come: “I want you to focus on that moment when two minivan mamas lock eyes in the germ pit and explode that.” Potent advice. It’s what Jessica Rapisarda knew when she wrote that great piece about the runaway turd for LYTM DC 14 and suspended excrement mid-roll while she recounted a moment from her childhood that rendered me farklempt.

Aside: Yes, I did just shamelessly tag two different people in that paragraph in hopes that they’ll read. It’s called social media, people. For those of you reading the home improvement storyline, pay attention now and stop looking at the photo.

Brother and Brother’s Helper arrived early Thursday morning with tools and apologies. Brother pulled out his stain samples for the banister, matched the color, took notes, and then got to work on the details. I positioned myself at the kitchen table to write. Brother produced an unfinished oak spindle to match the missing one. Brother and Brother’s Helper took turns sawing portions off the top, attempting to wedge it into place, and returning to the swirling blade in my garage. Likewise with the bullnose tread for the top step and the piece of veneer they placed over the plywood on our landing. I lost count of their trips, but noted that they’d tracked in considerable debris.

Deputy and his posse arrived ready to prime and paint. While they set up, I inspected Brother’s carpentry efforts. The staircase’s appearance looked better, but the banister itself still twerked a bit like Miley Cyrus. Brother sighed and scratched his head. Sensing his dread, I went in for the kill: “Head Honcho said it’d be no problem,” I mentioned with a tone of sarcasm. Exploiting this sibling rivalry worked; when Brother was done nailing and screwing metal into that newel and volute (thanks, Wikipedia) that sucker didn’t budge.

Aside: I’m going to get literary now, so expect fewer references to pop culture and design terminology, but don’t bust out the MLA handbook.

We use the phrase “a fresh set of eyes” when referring to readers. It goes far beyond that. You need a fearless mechanic. I once disassembled my mother’s sewing machine, removed an errant thread, and reassembled the bad boy. Likewise, my memoir manuscript originally followed strict chronological order of events until I noted that the tone was inconsistent. There had to be some anchor story to explain the ambivalence I had about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah. Out came a pair of scissors that I used to cut 200 pages into 24 segments. A present-day story line emerged, a banister to secure all of those individual spindles.

The manuscript was as close to perfect as I could achieve alone when I handed it off to Melissa Scholes Young last summer. She got out her saw, along with Brother’s array of metal pieces, a nail gun, some caulk, and sandpaper, and went to work. The result is a much sturdier, elegant memoir. Nonetheless, I am ready to hand this most recent incarnation over to yet another reader for advice.

I am hopeful that the scissors are safe in the drawer for this round. As for my home project, Deputy painted the stair treads and risers Navajo White as I had instructed, and left Thursday evening. Friday morning, he covered the Navajo White with a coat of White 914 because I changed my mind about the color. That afternoon, he packed up his drop clothes, painter’s tape, and brushes, and left with his posse making vague promises to return after our carpet runner is installed.

Aside: Dust will irritate your eyes and fumes from the stain striper will scar your lung tissue even with all of the windows open. If you are like me, you will subject yourself to this for ten days because you really can’t visualize the outcome and must stumble along blindly keeping your options open.

Aside to the Aside: Say tuned. The carpet is ordered, but the installation is not yet scheduled. It could be a few weeks. In the meantime, feel free to tune back in next Friday for something Off the Page. I’ll try to keep it under 1,000 words.

IMAG0796

Of Paint and Writing

Paint has redemptive power. My first experience of this came at age 16 while refinishing my dresser. I removed the burlap from the drawer fronts, sanded everything, used white paint to cover the dark brown, stained oak pulls and added them to the drawers.

Twenty-five years later, I hired painters to transform my entryway.

Maybe it’s the paint fumes, but damn if the whole creative process doesn’t apply equally to writing…at least in this post. I’ve broken it down here, so my readers get a primer for either home projects or writing. Choose your own adventure.

The Conceptual Phase

In writing pedagogy, “brainstorming” is the proper lingo. My friends in the mental health community might call this “mania.” At 2 a.m., ideas speed like whirling dervishes through my brain. This phase scares my poor husband. “Just let me know when you decide what you want,” he says.

I am fortunate to have a gifted friend @AlexandraDesignFinds. Within minutes of texting her about my design emergency, she called to ask it she should bring her paint samples.

Aside: Yes, I did just use a twitter handle instead of my friend’s name because social media will notify her that way. And this is all about getting you the reader to hopscotch around the Internet and follow her blog, and mine, but mostly mine.

Putting it on Paper

The blank wall, blank page, blank computer screen are sirens calling. When the dude arrives with a tape measure, shit gets real fast. Estimates, calendars, and deposits… the writing equivalent would be a pitch for an article and an advance. If I were the type of person who could come up with a thesis statement before writing the whole essay, I might be more successful at this. Being a customer, I dug out my wallet.

Aside: I married well. My husband jokes that he’s my sugar daddy. It’s true. Don’t think for a minute that I actually make money writing.

With the Big Start Day (B.S.D.) inching closer, I generated some “while you’re here, could you just ____?” requests. Hearing “Cha-Ching” instead of the specifics, the company president said, “Sure, we can do that.”

When asked about number of days that my family would be unable to climb our stairs and use our bedrooms, Head Honcho said, “Don’t you just want to go on vacation while we do the work?” What he meant was, “Oh shit, this lady is going to be trouble.”

B.S.D. and Subsequent Work Day(sss)

My first clue came when the company president’s brother, the carpenter/foreman, arrived. I took Brother on the tour. He scratched his head and asked how long Head Honcho had estimated the project would last. His forehead crinkled into a horizontal dash and his head bobbed in an impressive cross between affirmation and denial. I have that same response every time I look over my jumble of incoherent thoughts and realize that I need 1,200 semi-intelligent words by Friday.

Brother introduced Deputy along with a posse of two and left, still shaking his head.

Deputy spoke wonderful English with me before he turned toward the posse and let loose a stream of Spanish that might have translated to “This crazy bitch thinks we’re going to finish in four days.” Somehow, I worried as the tarp went up to cordon off the area. Would I wind up without any chair railing in the entryway and the wrong color on the walls? Two options came to mind: 1) stand over the crew of three men to convey that I didn’t trust them or 2) leave the house on an errand, but return before they had time to do irreparable harm.

Aside: Lest I sound paranoid or racist let me assure you that I’ve had a native English speaker crash through the attic floor causing bits of thirty-year-old insulation to snow from the ceiling. Incompetence knows no racial or linguistic boundaries. Sometimes, it’s best to walk away.

Inspiration

While they painted,the workmen listened to and sang along with Christian music in Spanish. For hours. With an iPod plugged into MY electrical outlets.

Aside: When I hear the first notes of gospel music or Barry Manilow-esque ballads to God while channel surfing in my car, I hit the “search” button faster than I do when inappropriate rap lyrics blare from the speakers towards my not-so-innocent children.

I didn’t complain for the same reason that I never send meals back at restaurants: someone might spit in my food, or worse. Annoyed but feverishly writing to a deadline, I blocked the noise. Or so I thought, until I found myself humming along to one song. Nuggets of memory stirred. But my deadline didn’t involve reminiscing about Amy Grant and my high school years when I loved Jesus like the boyfriend I didn’t have.

Aside: if I were a disciplined and organized writer, I would record this moment in my journal and find some profound place for it later on – an essay, perhaps. Instead, I’m going to exploit it here in hopes that I get a few laughs and followers.

A closet chock full of memories had blown open. That song reminded me that memory isn’t a sharp digital image that can be replicated on the page. Often it’s visceral: the stomach cramping that precedes a bowel movement (B.M., as my mother used to call it).

Can’t they work any faster?

I would have been more annoyed when the crew took one-hour lunch breaks each day if I hadn’t used the time to rest/nap in the basement. My husband pointed out that we were paying them by the job, not the hour, and that paint needs a chance to dry.

Aside: I now believe that writers like Hemingway drank and caroused so heavily to let the ink dry on the page. Time away is good. Ideas need time to marinate; writers need distance to gain some perspective. It’s also difficult to be uptight when you’re drunk and/or experiencing blood rushing away from your brain to erogenous zones.

Seeing Spackle on walls and sanded wooden spindles didn’t really WOW me. But when Deputy took down the plastic sheeting while packing up Tuesday afternoon, I admired the color. It was breathtaking; like that perfect paragraph in a draft that gleams while the rest of the pages belong in an overflowing trash bin. I couldn’t keep from staring, rereading it, and congratulating myself on my impeccable taste.

No Show Wednesday

There’s the need for distance and then there’s the day that the crew just doesn’t show. I’d cancelled with the cleaning lady to accommodate the workers (see Aside above regarding Sugar Daddy). Brother called at 8 a.m. to explain that he couldn’t make it until tomorrow, and the guys really couldn’t continue until he bought supplies and performed his carpentry magic.

Aside: Brother is my writing group in this extended metaphor. He’s the dude who assesses the work, replaces the wood trim that didn’t survive the carpet removal process, and drives screws into the banister so it doesn’t collapse when my kids use it as a launch pad. He’s worth waiting for.

Aside to the Aside: I have surpassed my self-imposed 1200 word max. This bad boy, like my home project, is going “To BE Continued.” In the meantime, share me with your friends on FB and Twitter. There are lovely little icons that you just click. See them? Thank you! Until next time….

 

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