Party Like It’s 1999

My birthday, which fell on a Saturday this year, started off in the nicest possible way with funny cards from my kids and husband over breakfast. Once we finished eating, I became a taskmaster, handing out assignments to prepare for the birthday party we were hosting that afternoon with family friends.

THWUNK! was not the sound I expected to hear when I sent my husband outside to sweep off the front porch. From inside, I saw the ladder against the tree. Confused, I ran out the storm door, saying “what the….”

Aside: Pete insists that I used swear words. I have no such recollection, but must admit that it would be entirely out of character for me to curb my tongue at such a moment.

While we stared at the large tree limb in our front yard, Pete said, “That was a little bigger than I thought.”

Aside: We joke that I am spatially inept. Twice, I’ve convinced Pete to purchase items with the reassurance that they’d fit in the car. For the record, both the propane grill and the plastic lawn chairs did fit after we unpacked the box and disassembled them.

Because he knows me well, my husband was not happy to see me at that particular moment. “Blog Post?!?” he muttered.

Aside: Saturdays are ripe for material. If you don’t want to be “material” for my ramblings, you ought to avoid me. I post on Thursdays, obsessively check my blog stats for two days, and realize that I my next self-imposed deadlines is coming.

When I offered to help, Pete hesitated before accepting. The kids got in on the action. Forty-five minutes later, we had four lawn bags full of leaves and branches stacked neatly at the curb. It was not how I had imagined spending my morning.

Aside: Did I mention that it was my birthday? Some girls get manis and pedis on their birthdays; I chop firewood.

Moping about the turn of events, I attacked the weeds that surrounded our azalea bushes near the front walk and thought back to my birthday fifteen years earlier. Pete and I had moved to Virginia in July 1999 for his first job out of grad school; his start date fell on my birthday. To make matters worse, our furniture was scheduled to arrive that day. I spent my 27th birthday in a vacant apartment located 2,000 miles away from family and friends, jumping up to look out the front window every time I heard a large truck. When Pete came home, the furniture had not arrived. He took me to dinner, and then we slept on the floor for the fifth night in a row.

Aside: Congratulations on hanging in through that bummer of a story, dear reader. I promise not to end on a bad note because posts, like Disney movies, need happy endings.

Wallowing in self-pity, I moved onto the side of my house and pulled more weeds until a sharp pain shot through one finger. My expletive caught the attention of a man walking his dog down our street. By the time he circled back up our cul de sac (and crossed to the opposite side of the street), I was attempting to clean out two small cuts.

I spent the rest of the morning cleaning and cooking (and by cooking, I mean transferring baked potato salad from the Wegman’s container to my own Corning ware). Between chores, I read birthday wishes on Facebook and texts from family and friends. Many of my friends are people I didn’t know fifteen years ago. I’ve made them while teaching at Chantilly High for four years, raising a puppy who grew into a geriatric dog and died two years ago, completing an MFA program in writing at George Mason University, attending Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Reston, and sitting poolside at Lake Audubon during swim seasons. I have two kids who are old enough to do chores and mostly take care of their own hygiene. My husband loves me and doesn’t mind that I refer to him as my Sugar Daddy. The last fifteen years have been good to me. I’m forty-two!

Aside: What that means is that I can plan my own birthday celebration, get away with cursing while weeding my garden, and feed my guests whatever I want. I’ve earned my gray hairs, jowls, muffin top, and bingo wings (thanks, Kate Coveney Hood, for that terminology).

Our friends arrived with flowers, gifts, and birthday cake. We partied like it was 1999.

Aside: Except for the 27-year-old body.

If You Loan a Writer a Car….

It’s 90 degrees in Virginia with at least 80% humidity. I know this because the air conditioning in my car crapped out the week I volunteered to serve as a shuttle bus operator for my son and his friend. They’re heading to Camp Invention, and I am in charge of pick up (PU) during the hottest part of the day.

Aside: If you have kids, you should definitely check out Camp Invention. The kids take shit apart (and by shit, I mean the electronics lurking in your basement that no longer work) and design new machines out of junk in your recycle bins. If you’re lucky, your kid won’t be able to bring any of these creations home at the end of the week.

Hauling two sweaty 6 year-old boys around on Monday motivates me to schedule the oil change that’s 3,000 miles overdue and to ask the car dealership to add Freon. Because it’s 90 degrees with 80% humidity, the other million people who live in my county have the same idea. The soonest appointment is Friday. I can drop off my car Thursday and pick up a loaner car with A/C in time for afternoon PU at camp.

Except that they’re out of loaner cars an hour before PU.

Fast forward to me sitting in a hot car with my charges while phoning the dealership, which is only three miles from the PU site. They have one! I rush to the dealership without breaking any traffic laws, hustle the boys out of the hot car with their backpacks and booster seats, and herd them into the office. After four days of riding around without A/C, we are all eager for bone-chilling air. Paperwork, key exchange, gathering of belongings, and we walk to our new ride.

IMAG0855

“Blue” turns out to be neon blue. The 4” letters emblazoned on the rear window that spell out the dealership name don’t faze me. Nor does the compact size. We are about to have A/C. I shove (or rather gently secure) the boys in the backseat and open the driver’s door. “Ew yuck,” I hear before the heat and the smell overtake me. “Just wait, I’ll get the A/C on,” I say.

Aside: I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the country and pride myself in trying to be moderate in my consumer habits. My SUV is nine years old. It has crumbs and stains galore, but this loaner car has just grossed out two sweaty 6 y.o. boys.

I can barely see out the back window because it is so small. What I can see is obscured by white letters. The side mirrors have some funky second smaller mirrors on them that disorient me every time I change lanes. Still, having a car, even a loaner car, is a privilege. There are homeless people sleeping behind my church, for God’s sake.

My resolve cracks Friday afternoon at PU when I receive the call from the dealership. It isn’t the estimate ($1,600 for a new air compressor); it’s the prospect of keeping the loaner car for an entire weekend. My SUV is the swim meet car, the one that can haul a 12’ canopy, 4 lawn chairs, a cooler of snacks, and towels. It still has greasy handprints where my son touched the exterior and interior after applying sunscreen.

We could make it work. The glitch is that I previously offered to drive into DC with a woman I barely know who is rungs higher on the career ladder than I. She has a book and a respectable journalism career. Hell, we’re not even on the same ladder.

Aside: This is not like the time I wound up driving Dave Eggers to an event at Fall for the Book because my friend, the festival organizer, walked into a parking garage arm that was descending, got a mild concussion, and asked me to fill in. This is a true, first-world crisis.

Luckily, I am able to weasel out of driving, but accept her offer for a ride. “I can just meet you at your house,” I say. Which sounds like a good idea until I’m about a mile from her house. The homes get bigger, and the lawns more expansive. Holy shit, I’m on her street searching for numbers in a clown car. Her house stands at the top of the cul de sac. I start looking for places to park/hide my car. Except there are no other cars on the street because these houses have three-freaking-car garages and sizable driveways.

I park in the shade and trek up the driveway. The garage magically opens. My writing acquaintance emerges to greet me. Inside the garage, a Tesla sits connected to the charging station.

Aside: Let me be clear, I’ve seen expensive cars when taking my children to play dates with school friends. Porsche, Escalade…but this is a Tesla. True, it’s not a Bentley or a Lamborghini, but hot damn.  

While this Tesla-owning writer runs back into the house to retrieve the keys to the Lexus SUV parked next to it, I text another writer friend. Only my phone’s autocorrect indicates that the car is a “Trespass.” Now she thinks I’m about to commit a crime. Covert texting ensues to clarify.

Aside: This car situation mirrors my own feelings of insecurity about attending an event with fellow writers, many younger with more publications than I.

The trip into the city, the exchanging of business cards, and the pleasant conversation with my new writing friend go well. I soak up her advice and remind myself that she is older and wiser….

When we near her house, my new friend spots my neon blue, clown car. “Oh, that’s you,” she says, parking her Lexus SUV beside it to let me out. I drive away thinking how glad I am that my sunscreen-streaked, crumb-infested vehicle is back at the dealership, far away from the Tesla. I can’t wait to get it back.

IMAG0857-2

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.

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.

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.