Sunday, May 10, 2015

Wannabe novelist ISO ambivalence and full-body foot skin

Photo courtesy of Ann Toal/Flickr
Back in January I wrote about how prepared for rejection I was. I've had three decades worth of experience to draw from. Rejection of all flora and fauna. A veritable ecosystem of "I like you, buts" and "I'm sorry to inform yous" and "Regretfullies" and "Unfortunatelies." (I never actually read beyond those first words, because there's no point, really. Rarely has the word "Unfortunately" been followed by "we've decided to turn down all the other applications/submissions because you are by far the most awesome applicant/submitter we have ever come across in the history of our organization and we want to hire/date/represent you." That's like (to reference "The 40-year-old Virgin") tearing up the hardwood to see if there's carpet underneath. It's never the case.)). 

Man that was a long aside. With double parentheses even! To think nobody would want to represent a writer with such a proclivity for digression! Who doesn't want to read pages and pages of meaningless asides before anything actually happens in the story? 

Where was I?

So, back in January, I wrote about how prepared for rejection I was. It was a good thing I was prepared, because shortly after that, I received word that short stories I'd submitted to two literary competitions were rejected. 

No big deal, I told myself (after I finished secretly sobbing in the car while listening to Florence + and Machine) because it stands to reason I can't be rejected forever. All this short-term rejection will eventually lead to long-term success, right? Didn't someone once say that the road to getting published was paved with the tears of a thousand wannabe novelists? 

Maybe that's just what I told myself after yet another ugly cry.

Armed with my most recent rejection and a weird combination of blind optimism masked by too-cool-for-school cynicism, I submitted my manuscript to five agents in March.

And then a week later, one of those five agents wrote back and asked for the first chapter. And then a week after that, that same agent wrote back and asked for the entire manuscript, which I sent. 

I didn't sleep much that night. And didn't sleep all that well for many nights after. During the day I obsessed about whether that agent was reading my manuscript and what they thought about it and when I'd hear back from them and  whether they'd want to represent it. My stomach felt like that forest in Mexico where all the Monarch butterflies migrate. The girls would try to have conversations with me and their words would flutter about, never actually landing in my ears because I was off fantasizing about the mere possibility of acceptance.

When Brad tried to get excited on my behalf, I told him it probably wasn't going to happen. And he'd say something like, "It only takes one person to read it and like it" and then I'd say "Well, I'm supposed to be turned down, like a billion times first, and anyway, probably nobody is going to like it ever because it's horrible and lame and I should probably just focus my efforts on removing all those hairy, sticky spots on the kitchen floor." And then he'd roll his eyes at me and then I'd say, "I just don't want to get my hopes up."

But in secret, my hopes were up. Just, floating on up into the stratosphere like an escaped birthday balloon.

I started designing the cover art in my head. Writing the acknowledgments. Picturing its placement on the bookstore shelf.

You know, generally getting way ahead of myself. 

But then I didn't hear anything back. For weeks and weeks and weeks. It had been a month and a half since I sent out my initial round of queries and my email inbox was nothing but a wasteland of work-related emails and coupons from Gymboree and Books-a-Million. Not even any "thanks, but no thanks" or "unfortunatlies" or "regrettablies" or "you should probably give up on your childhood dream and pursue more practical arts, like dish scrubbery or fitted-sheet folding."

And then, last week, I heard back from the agent (well, the agent's assistant anyway):

"Thank you for sending the additional material. Unfortunately, OUT OF THE WOODS is not quite what [AGENT's NAME] is looking for. Therefore, she must regretfully decline consideration at this point.

We wish you all the best with this and future projects. Thanks again for the opportunity to review your work."


As it turns out, it doesn't matter how much you've been rejected in the past. It still really, really sucks when it happens again.

"They" (i.e. those who have been through this process before) say that when you're querying, you're supposed to just keep on writing. And even though I have plenty of story ideas, these days I dread writing.

And that's the most disheartening part about this whole thing. It's not necessarily the rejection. It's the loss of motivation that accompanies it. The feeling of futility. It makes me want to give up on writing. All the noise and great expectations and disappointment are sucking the joy out of this thing that I love to do. Amy Poehler even warned me about this very thing (OK, not me personally. It was in her book. But it felt like she was speaking directly to me): 

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look."

I know, I know, as a wannabe novelist/first-time querier, I should have thicker skin. Like, right now it's wet phyllo dough when it really needs to be tough and leathery, kinda like the skin on the bottom of my feet. I'm pretty sure I could walk over a miles-worth of Legos and dried up bits of Play-Doh, barefoot without any pain. That's how tough my foot skin is (attractive I know, especially now that it's sandal season). 

It was foolish to think so early on I'd find my golden ticket. I'm no Charlie Bucket. I won't happen upon a few candy bars and end up with a published novel. No, I'm Veruca Salt in this scenario going through thousands and thousands of candy bars in search of The One. 

Only in this scenario, literary agents are candy bars. And I don't want any omniscient squirrels.

I think the solution is, more chocolate. And more Florence + The Machine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Taking the fingers out of my ears

Photo courtesy of John Brucato/Flickr

A year or two ago my mom and I took the girls to the National Aquarium in Baltimore for the day. As I'm apt to do when driving in cities, I got turned around when leaving the parking garage and ended up missing my exit for the interstate and driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood.


"This doesn't look like an area I'd want to spend too much time in," Mom said from the passenger seat, her democratic way of suggesting we'd ended up in a bad part of town and maybe we should turn around. 


Like, immediately.


To my eyes (raised in the lush green fairytale of the Washington, D.C. suburbs) the area looked bleak. Asphalt, meets concrete, meets stark public housing. And all in the oppressive stone shadow of the monolithic Baltimore Detention Center. 


No, it wasn't a place I'd want to spend a whole lot of time in either. And I didn't have to. A few minutes later I found the freeway entrance and we raced back home to York. 


When you are born looking like I do – like my children do – and raised where we have been with all it's comfort, conveniences and opportunities, that time you went to the projects ends up being a minor footnote to a pleasant day spent looking at fish rather than the defining backdrop of your entire life.


I write this and immediately feel ugly, elitist and judgmental. 


I'd roll my eyes at me, too, as I rolled up my car windows.


I mean, of course the projects aren't synonymous with Disney Land. Everyone knows that, right? But to the people who live there, that's home. 


Even I get defensive when people ask me why I'd want to live in York. This rusty old industrial city in the armpit of Pennsylvania. But it's home. And it grows on you. And you take pride in your home. No matter how much it smells like rotten sauerkraut on the dank days the winds blow in from the paper mill in Spring Grove. No matter how strange it is that people like to spend a week in June sitting along  the highway on lawn chairs watching cars drive by. 

It might not be pretty or perfect. It has plenty of problems. But it's my home. My community. I can complain about it all I want, but as soon as an outsider starts commenting on its warts they'll get an earful.


I imagine it's like that for the residents of Baltimore – even for the residents of the most neglected areas of Baltimore. Tired of those Inner Harbor-goers judging their city.



***

I've started (and stopped) writing about race in America a dozen times in the past year. I didn't want to write anything because I didn't want to write anything controversial. Didn't want to write anything trite. Didn't want to write anything that was ignorant. Didn't want to write anything offensive. Didn't want to oversimplify or underestimate. I didn't want to be yet another well-meaning white person patting myself on the back for trying to understand centuries of subtle and not-so-subtle segregation and racism. 


This isn't my fight. But it keeps tapping me on the shoulder. 


This quote from Desmond Tutu showed up on my Facebook feed the other day:


"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."


I am not neutral.  


"I want to read what a white, middle class, suburban housewife has to say about racial discord in American cities," said no one ever. I will spare you of any long-winded and potentially misguided musings of my own. 


Instead, I'll point you to compelling stories, books and articles I've come across in the past year that have given me some clarity and a deeper understanding of why black Americans feel the need to remind the rest of us that black lives matter.  


And why they are so frustrated and furious.


They've of forced me out of indifference. Made me take take out the fingers I'd put in my ears to mute other people's problems. 

Here's the roundup:


"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander: Alexander is a legal scholar who argues that the racial caste system we thought was dissolved by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, has been replaced by the systemic mass incarceration of African American men via the War on Drugs. The book is well-researched, well-argued, sobering and a must-read for anyone who wants to straddle the line. It's not a question of if our criminal justice system is broken. The question is how can we fix it. And I won't lie, it's a depressing read. When I finished it, my faith in the goodness of people and government was rather low; not to mention my optimism that things could change. But I suppose the first step to change is acknowledging that change needs to be made. York Attorney Dawn Cutaia, who frequently writes about issues of race, offered a good overview of the book here. While you're at it, check out Dawn's latest column about Baltimore here.


This American Life regularly offers fresh perspectives on all walks of life in our country. The two-part show they did about Chicago's Harper High School, which has been plagued by gun violence, left me crying in the gym. House Rules shares stories behind the fair housing laws and Is This Working? looks at how schools deal with discipling students. Maybe these topics seem disconnected, but listen to them and you'll find a common thread.




The Nov. 12, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated featured of photo spread of the annual Angola Prison Rodeo, in which (mostly) black inmates ride the bulls for the entertainment of a (mostly) white audience. I was reading "The New Jim Crow" at the time, which made it all the more upsetting.

This article from Salon on charter schools which highlights fraud, financial mismanagement and failure in the charter schools that are replacing struggling public schools in U.S. cities. 


"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot tells the story about how the  a poor, black tobacco farmer's cells (taken without her knowledge) came to be one of the most important tools of modern medicine used for developing the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. Despite her contributions to medicine, neither Henrietta nor her family (who can't afford health care themselves) were ever compensated – even though her cells have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta lived in Baltimore and was treated at Hopkins. It's a good peek at the city then and now.  (You can listen to a short version of this story on RadioLab)


"The Known World" by Edward P. Jones is a novel about a black farmer living in antebellum Virginia, whose mentor – a wealthy, white plantation owner – eventually inspires him to own slaves of his own. The story is complex and haunting and the writing is gorgeous. 


And these essays:


From Jezebel: I don't know what to do with good white people


From SalonDear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now

From the York Daily Record: Baltimore Rioting – The Language of the Unheard:  "The lesson here is that the unheard resort to violence because it is the language that the powers-that-be seem to understand. Look at it from their perspective: They are ignored. The plight of their neighborhoods, their schools, their institutions are ignored. Until they take to the streets and destroy their neighborhood. Then, people who can make a difference at least pretend to listen. The riots in Baltimore had little, if anything to do with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. They had more to do with hopelessness."

York attorney Dawn Cutaia has written several interesting oped pieces for the York Daily Record in the past year or so. Check some of them out here.


Note, I'm not suggesting that any one of these pieces tells the entire story of this issue. Obviously, there are many, many voices and many, many perspectives and plenty of other pieces that examine race in America – such an enormous and immensely complicated topic. Like I said, these are just a few of the things I've come across recently that have stuck with me.


And I also feel the need to note that by saying I believe black lives matter, I'm not saying that other lives matter less. This isn't a zero sum game. All lives matter. Black, white. Law enforcement, civilian. Young, old. We all matter. And we'll be a stronger, better country when we believe that beyond lip service. 


We all matter.  


P.S. Here are some additional things to check out courtesy of friends on Facebook: 

From Nickie: I agree with many of the reading recommendations, especially the Harper High series. I will add two reading suggestions on this topic. Sarah Smarsh's article on dental care: http://aeon.co/.../the-shame-of-poor-teeth-in-a-rich.../... And this is a MUST-READ book on education and upward mobility: http://mobile.nytimes.com/.../the-short-and-tragic-life...

From Mrs. Gray was thinking today, that as a society we do a great job of the hear no bad news, see no bad news, speak no bad news. We roll along on our conveyor belt of seeming prosperity with our blindfolds on. And when our underfunded public institutions, like schools and police forces don't work magic, we focus our concern there, rather than on the underlying chasm of inequality. ... And may I add to the List the TAL Episode Three Miles http://www.thisamericanlife.org/.../550/three-miles...

From ChrisI wish more outlets could take NPR's lead and do the kind of sustained reporting they have been putting together on these topics in recent years. ... Curious if you've read/considered last summer's piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates and how it might fit into this conversation/education ... http://www.theatlantic.com/.../the-case-for.../361631/

More from NickieI second Christopher! Ta-Nehisi Coates is required reading. Last year's Propublica series on school segregation is terrific, too. http://www.ewa.org/first-prize/nikole-hannah-jonespropublica

From PatI'm assuming I missed a mention of THe Corner. If not, it's a brilliant read. 
http://www.amazon.com/The-Corner-Year-Inner.../dp/0767900316
Also, MLK's "Why We Can't Wait"
And Buzz Bissinger's "A Prayer For The City" are worthwhile reads on several levels.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Paint your carpets!

I assumed that the worst decision Lily would make today was when she turned the hose on me as I opened the sunroom door, spraying water into the house while giggling manically then racing away with the hose still at full blast as I yelled at her to stop.

I guess I figured the time out and loss of cartoons would somehow spur her into considering her actions more. That she'd pause before she engaged in any activity that might be frowned upon, forbidden or in that gray area in between. You know, ask herself, "is this really a good idea?"

The fact that she requested a nibble of her chocolate bunny – leftover from Easter – while she was lounging in the time out chair should've given me some indication that the lesson, as it were, hadn't been learned.

An hour or so later, I'm squeezing in a little work while the girls play in their shared room for "quiet time." 

The first indication that something was amiss should've been that it was actually relatively quiet in the room. (And by relatively quiet I mean there were escalating arguments over who got to play with which pony followed by the the sounds I imagine warring badgers make when vying over prime burrow locations. These noises are inevitably followed by the blood-curdling cries of the losing badger, i.e., in most scenarios, Jovie.)

Aside from a few anonymous thumps and low-level chatter, they seemed to be getting along famously.

That was until I heard Jovie.

"No Lily, I don't want you to paint me anymore!"
Victim 1

I stood up from my chair. Horrified. 

Had I just heard what I thought I heard?

I crept over to their room.

The hallway smelled like an elementary school art class.

I paused to collect myself. Then quietly opened the door. 

Lily, her left eye smudged with red paint, grins at me.

"Hi mom! We're painting the room!" 

She skips off flicking gobs of purple paint on her walls, the door, the dresser. Like the frost fairies in Fantasia. A sprinkle here. A touch there. Smear some more on bed for good measure. A chair is pushed over to the bookshelf where I stow the art supplies. There are toys everywhere, many of which have been transformed by my little artistic sprite.

Jovie's face is covered in purple. Covered. But that was, at least, manageable.  

No, the part that had me frozen in panic and uncertainty and quiet (oh so very quiet) rage was the carpet. Which looked like this:


Victim 2
"I wanted to make the carpet pretty!" Lily told me. 

And you know what? The carpet was pretty. The colors were so bright and cheerful. The splatters so playful and fun. I desperately wanted to be the mom who saw the boring beige carpet covered in paint and rejoiced at her kid's free spirit and creativity and ran for more paint. 

I wanted to be "Let's finish the job!" mom where the three of us would laugh and splatter paint over this and that like knock-off Jackson Pollocks. And then when we were done with that, we'd race out to the garage and cover my boring silver Moms-UV with more paint.

What the hell? Let's make everything pretty!



Sigh.

But I'm not that mom. 

Instead I collected my the remains of my wits. Assessed the damage. Requested that Lily stop with the paint on everything. Filled the bathtub. Washed the girls. Wiped down the toys. Asked Lily to wipe down the walls. Revoked more cartoon privileges. Stowed all painting supplies. Called the neighbor.

"Can I borrow your steam cleaner? Lily painted her carpet." 

There were no questions asked. What more do you need to know really?

The girls played in the backyard (or "got in to mischief" as Lily told me proudly. Seriously kid?!) and I attempted to wipe away their masterpiece. Why is it always the carpet? Our pale, pale carpets? They've been smeared with diaper cream, peed on, pooped on, Play-Dohed, juiced and puked on in 31 flavors (remember that time with the butter vom?  Or the rainbow barf?)


The Bissell ProHeat CleanShot filled with carpet juice.
After 45 minutes of steam cleaning, the room still looks like a crime-scene coverup.
"I just wanted to make painting land!" Lily told me as she was getting ready for bed.


Mission accomplished, kid. 

Now, why don't you go ahead and get that hose from the backyard? Looks like we might need it.


"The Halfling: The Desolation of Mom"

Friday, April 17, 2015

That time Fern met Sam

Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr

A  week or two ago I was on the Twitter cyber-stalking agents in hopes of finding a shepherd for my novel.

I found the hashtag #MSWL, where agents post about the types of manuscripts they're looking for. 

As it turns out, there aren't any agents looking for a story about a grief-stricken 20-something who stumbles on a body in the woods and ends up befriending the dead guy's sister and a friendly newspaper photographer. 

I should probably start my own hashtag: #PBOWB (Pipe Dreams of Wannabe Novelists).

Anyway, I came across this Tweet from Navah Wolfe:



This immediately made me smile. I love the Pevensies, though I was always partial to Lucy. She seemed much less fussy and she never gave up on Narnia. Not like Susan. 

These days I feel more like Susan though (I mean aside from the name thing). All mired in the practical side of being a grown up. Less engaged with the every day magic.

I thought about writing a story about Susan Pevensie. But then decided it had been too long since I'd read her stories. 

But then I got to thinking about writing fan fiction for characters I'd visited more recently. 

So I decided to write a story about the time Louis from "The Trumpet of the Swan" and the goose from "Charlotte's Web" hooked up. 

It was C-double R-double A-double Z-double YYY. 

Maybe I've watched that movie too many times.

Actually, I went more of a sentimental route, and decided that Fern Arable and Sam Beaver were totes MFEO. I wish I could be more wildly creative and nuanced about how I imagine their lives. But I love them and kind of just want them to be how they were when we first met. 

With apologies to E.B. White. 


"The Lake"

The lake was a clamor of squawks and honks and quacks. Splashing and plops and thwapping wings. Sunlight skittered over the the parts of the water not shadowed by fluffy cumulous clouds. 

Gangs of mallard and ancona and pekin and runner ducks paddled in and out of coves, dunking their heads underwater for bits of this or that. Beefy Canada geese ambled along the shore preening their feathers and shaking out their wings. 

And floating above the riot, as proper and disaffected as landed lords and ladies were the Trumpeter swans. As white as sun-dried sheets, save for their sharp, coal-black bills. The very stuff of love stories and children's stories.

Fern sat on a concrete bench just off the walkway that circled Bird Lake. Meditating on the sounds of waterfowl and how they made her think of home and the farmyard. 

Though the noises were different here, of course. 

The exclamations of children about the lions and jaguars or the cries over fallen ice cream and exhausted legs. The inescapable noise of cars on highways. And the smells, too. Here, it changed with the breeze. Sometimes popcorn. Sometimes the heavy, musky scent of camels or buffalo. The sweat of overheated patrons. On the worst days it was the pungent ammonia wafting from the primate house. 

At home it seemed simpler. The fussy clucking of hens. The conversational snorting of pigs. The bleating of goats and sheep. It always smelled of sweet hay, earthy manure and  the tang of milk off the cow.

Fern wished she could block out everything but the smell of the damp earth at her feet and the sound of the honking geese. As close as she could get right now to springtime in the barnyard. But even with eyes closed the relentless cacophony of the city suffocated her.

Three years ago, it had all been so exciting.

"I'm going to law school at Penn. Come with me," Henry begged. "You can find a job in the city. You're smart."

She didn't need Henry to remind her about that. She'd graduated near the top of her class at Cortland. Had been thinking about a masters in environmental policy when Henry convinced her to move.

His mother was furious about it, of course. That Henry was still fawning over that Arable girl after all this time. Practically born and raised in a barn cellar. His mother's nose still wrinkled every time Fern visited, as if she smelled of excrement, a swarm of invisible flies haloing her head.

Being with Henry was as natural as the over pronounced way she swung her arms when she walked, a sort of thoughtless habit formed to help cross fields and country lanes with more efficiency. But in the city, both Henry and her odd gait made her self-concious. Her movements taking up too much room in such a crowded place, made all the more evident by Henry's inborn townie gentility.

Last night, he treated Fern to a candlelit dinner at a swanky French bistro and actually ordered for her, something she'd observed his mentor from the firm he'd interned at doing for his wife one night the four of them had gone out together. 

"Did Winston forget his wife has an actual brain that might be capable of selecting a meal for herself?" She asked Henry on the walk home as they recapped the night.

"Aww. Don't be like that Fern. I think it's kind of nice – Winston knows how to speak French and he'd been to that restaurant before. He was being a gentleman." 

Fern rolled her eyes.

"He was being presumptuous."

But there was Henry. Being presumptuous. 

And then after he ordered for her, he took her to this little park near their apartment, all strung with white Christmas lights and got down on his knee and proposed to her.

"Winston tells me I'm in as soon as I pass the bar. They have an opening in their Paris office. Isn't that incredible? You and me in Paris?"

It was incredible. Fern knew it. And she didn't exactly love her job as a lab tech. But as she listened to dear Henry Fussy describe the path  their life together would take based on his advancement in the firm, she realized she wanted a different map.

"Henry," she said gently. "You're one of my oldest friends and I'm so proud of you. Look at you! practically a lawyer. Practically living in Paris! But I can't marry you. I'm so sorry. I can't be Fern Fussy."

And his face morphed through surprise and anger and regret before landing on a smirk. 

"Fern Fussy. That doesn't have any ring to it, does it?"

"It's actually the worst." 

They hugged. And when he told her she was too much of a country girl to ever survive in a city as sophisticated as Paris, she punched him in the arm. 

So here she was. With a new map, at the zoo, hoping nature (or proximity to nature) might offer some answers.

Her future yawned.

Staring in the water, she became aware of something tugging at her sneaker. She glanced down and was surprised to see a smallish Trumpeter swan had sidled up to the bench, and was staring sideways at her through one small onyx eye. When she had Fern's attention, the swan stretched her long neck over to Fern's foot and she grabbed her shoelace in her beak and pulled. 

"Hey! What's that about?" Fern asked in a quiet voice, her body still.

The swan yanked at her lace again.

"Her grandfather did that to me once."

Fern looked up to see a man about her age walk over carrying a clipboard. He wore cargo shorts, workboots and a green polo shirt. His hair was short and dark brown and his eyes clear blue and lined with smiles. 

"What's that?" Fern asked. Only a little flustered.

"Billie's grandfather -- he was a swan I knew year's ago. An old friend of mine. He once untied my shoe just like Billie here. I took it as a sign of friendship."

"You were friends with a swan?" Fern wasn't being judgmental, just conversational. 

"Sure. Louis is quite a swan. He writes and can play the trumpet. He used to perform here on Sundays. Now he lives out west. Still visits every once and a while, though he's getting on in years."

"And he played the trumpet? Like, an actual trumpet?" 

"That's right. He came to school with me back in Montana. Learned how to write there."

"And Billie is his granddaughter?" 

"That's right. A few of the Trumpeters here are related to Louis. Though none of them have taken up the trumpet. Of course, the others can sing just fine on their own. I've been watching Billie though, I think she's mute. Maybe I should pick her up a trumpet. See if she takes to it."

Fern studied the man. He didn't look crazy. In fact, he was very calm and matter-of-fact. He seemed at ease outside among the fowl. He reminded Fern a little of her father -- his easygoing stance and work-worn hands, dirt under his fingernails. She felt a twinge of homesickness. 

"You know a lot about these swans."

"Well, I suppose I should. I'm the head of the bird house here. My name's Sam Beaver." He sat at the other end of Fern's bench.

"Nice to meet you Sam Beaver. I'm Fern. I've just been enjoying watching your birds. They remind me a little of home."

"Oh? You live by a lake?"

"No. I grew up on a farm. We always had ducks and geese and chickens."

"And now you're a city girl?"

"I wouldn't say that. I don't know really what I am now. Just trying to figure that out."

As the two chatted, Billie waddled toward the water and stretched out her wings, one of which was much shorter than the other.

"What happened to her wing?" Fern asked.

"It's been clipped. It's how we maintain our population here."

Fern felt that old familiar self-righteousness welling up.

"Maintain your population? Is that the nice way to say you've disabled them?"

Sam frowned and shifted on the bench.

"A lot of the birds on this lake came to us with injuries. We take good care of them. They're well fed and safe from predators year-round."

"Of course. They just can't do the one thing nature designed for them to do. Fly."

"No offence, but it seems a little odd for a farmer to be advocating for animal rights. Last time I checked, cows and pigs weren't exactly living out their lives in comfort to a ripe old age." 

This time Fern grimaced. "Well, you like to eat don't you? Where do you think all those hamburgers and bacon you like come from?"

"I'm well aware of how the food supply works. Anyway, I don't eat hamburgers or bacon. I'm a vegetarian."

"Is that how you make peace with the bird mutilation?" Fern didn't mean to sound so harsh. She knew the zoo was a business, not unlike a farm. Every animal has its purpose. She softened. "I don't eat bacon either. I knew this pig once."

A smile creeped back on Sam's face. "You knew a pig once?"

"Wilbur. He was the runt of the litter. My father was going to kill him, but I intervened and I raised him like a baby -- bottle fed and everything. From a business standpoint my dad was crazy to let me keep him. He's always had a soft spot for me though. Wilbur was a wonderful pig. One of my first friends."

Fern hadn't thought about her pig in years. The memory of summer afternoons sitting on an old milk crate in the barn cellar brought tears to her eyes. 

Sam watched her. "It's good to remember old friends."

She nodded. "It is."

"I'll leave you to your birdwatching then," he stood up.

Fern looked up at him and smiled. "It was nice talking. Thank you for introducing me to Billie."

"Of course." He walked a few steps from the bench and then turned around. "Say. I get off in another half hour. If you want, I can show you around. You can give me more pointers on avian care. Maybe tell me about your pig." 

Fern nodded. "I think I'd like that."

As he walked away, as if waking from a daydream, she was suddenly aware of all surrounding noise. The birds the children the animals the cars.  

She closed her eyes and listened. Remembered being young with the sun on her face and a long summer full of possibility ahead of her.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Just eat the banana

Photo courtesy of Richard North/Flickr

I need a victory.

Something I can hoist myself up on and stand atop arms waving wildly like Rocky on the art museum steps.

Although preferably, no stairs. I don't have the stamina for stairs. But I would like the option to be victorious in a sweatsuit. I'm so tired of being cold.

At this point, I won't even be all that choosey about what that win entails. 

Last week at the grocery store, the cashier offered Lily a sticker. 

"I should probably get one for my sister, too," she told the woman after graciously accepting one for herself. My heart swelled. Granted, it was a small gesture. But a huge one for someone who spent a better part of the day locking her sister out of their shared bedroom, pulling her around by her jacket hood or shirt collar and generally asserting her dominance at every opportunity. 

But that small triumph has fizzled in the wake of their daily bickering.

A pair of eaglets hatched in a nest near where I live. It's unsettling to watch these small fuzzy bubbleheads tussle with each other over food -- barely able to hold up their heads and bodies -- but willing to kill the other for survival.  

Thank god I didn't birth raptors (though Lily is known among family and friends for her birdlike strut and propensity for squawking), but it is kind of creepy how eaglet-like they are toward one another.

Today was one of those days when the physiological affects of their unending demands and irrepressible lunacy was especially noticeable. I mean I could actually feel the blood in my body start to heat up and rise into my face while my teeth ground into each other and my muscles tensed.

For example, a conversation around 5 p.m.:

Jovie: Mom, I'm hungry.

Me: OK, well, we're eating dinner soon.

Jovie: I just want a banana.

Me: OK, you can have a banana. Just a minute.

Jovie: But I want the banana right now.

(Begins pushing chair to counter)

Me: OK, OK, I'll get it. 

(Hand Jovie a banana)

Jovie (after removing the peel and taking a small bite): Mom, I don't want this banana.

Me: But you just asked for the banana. You need to eat the banana.

Jovie: NO! I don't like it.

Me: Fine. Leave it on the counter.

Lily: Mom, I'm hungry.

Me: OK, well, we're eating dinner soon. 

Lily: I want a banana.

Me: OK, you can have Jovie's banana. It's on the counter. 

(Lily takes banana, commences eating it.)

Jovie: Mom! I want my BANANA!!

Me: But you just said you didn't want your banana. And now Lily is eating it.

Jovie: But I just want my banana. Right now.

Me (sighing): Fine. Here's another banana.

And here's the thing. I know they're little. Jovie's closing in on 3 and Lily's 4 and a 1/2 and I'm the 33-year-old asshole who just wants them to eat the goddamn banana and shut up about it already. Louis CK has already joked to great effect about this exact issue


"It's always your fault with a 3 year old. Always. Because they are what they are. They can't help it. Just tape the windows. It's a fucking hurricane." 

I can forgive Jovie for her belligerence and erratic behavior. Mostly. In the moment, I just want her to do the thing I need her to do without it involving a five-hour negotiation about why we have to put socks on with her shoes or why we have to brush her teeth and remove the crusted on coat of cream cheese and chocolate milk or why we have to take a nap (because if you don't take a nap, mommy might spend the rest of the afternoon curled up in the closet with the remaining cat, that's why). But I know that this is just another phase. 

It's harder sometimes with Lily though. Probably because she's given me glimpses that she can be a reasonable human person. Like, I'll ask to put her dishes in the sink and feed the dog and she'll do both tasks cheerfully and speedily without any resistance. And I'll start to think (foolishly) "Wow. She really is maturing." But then I'll suggest that it might be time for her to start wiping her own bottom after going No. 2 -- something she was perfectly fine handling before she started preschool -- and she'll erupt into torrential tears and frantic screaming, 'I can't! I can't! I CAN'T DO IT!!! WIPE ME MOM!!!" And I will, while simultaneously swallowing the odd mixture of rage and laughter that comes from watching a small child throw a tantrum while sitting, pants around her ankles, on the toilet. 

Reading that back right now, I'm even more convinced I'm an asshole. No pun intended.

This afternoon, I took the crew on a walk, thinking the fresh air would do everyone some good. By the third leg of the walk, both girls were out of the wagon, plodding along at a snail's pace. Which would've been fine if the dog hadn't been dragging me and the wagon didn't keep bumping into the backs of their feet. Neither wanted to get back in the wagon. Then Jovie would want someone to hold her hand, which I couldn't do because I had to pull the wagon and hold onto the dog, so I asked Lily if she'd hold her hand. Only Lily would use the opportunity to sprint down the sidewalk, which caused Jovie to fall down. Then Lily would plop down in the grass and not want to move. And Jovie would still be sad that there was no hand to hold. We inched along thusly. By the time we got to the park I was done. Lily, of course, wanted to go to the playground. In a rare showing of support for my sanity, I said no. This caused Lily to scream in agony. 

What a world! What a world. What a horrible, horrible mom! 

I just couldn't. I told her I didn't have the patience for the park today. I didn't tell her that what I wanted to do was go home and lock myself in the bedroom with a bottle of wine and the remainder of season one of "Big Love." 

We can't always get what we want.

She whimpered in the wagon the rest of the way home.

This is the part of motherhood that I hate. It's not the kids and all their shenanigans. They're just kids. They're my kids even. I love them. 

It's that I feel like I'm losing my sense of humor. Like I've forgotten how to go with the flow and instead am always swimming upstream. Everybody said being a parent is the hardest job you'll ever have. But (probably for good reason) nobody ever really goes into the details (or maybe I've just tuned them out). 

I think it's this. All the little silly nothings piling up while you shed layer after layer of the person you thought you were. 

On better days -- the not today days -- I'm grateful for the metamorphosis. I'm a better person for the girls. But so much of it hurts. Makes me feel ugly.

"You know what mom," Lily told me this afternoon. "You're driving me crazy."

Ditto kid.

Side note: In the midst of all the grass is greener-ing I was doing on Facebook, I spotted this great column. A great read for stressed out moms (which I suppose is redundant.)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Remembering Farmer Jim, esquire

Last August I received one of the hardest writing assignments of my short and rather undistinguished career. 

In May, my friend Jim was diagnosed with acute myeloid Leukemia. By August, it seemed he was having more bad days than good. His wife, Kristi, asked me if I could write the obit when the time came. 

"Of course." I told her. Because ... because, of course.

Then I promptly went about life. And Jim and Kristi went about their lives, though now with more intention. They went to more movies, spent long hours together binge-watching TV, visited New York City and saw shows and went sailing in Annapolis. 

"You should just write it now so it's ready when the time comes," people told me. But I couldn't. Because ... because, how?


(Here's a video we put together to celebrate Jim's birthday in February)

Jim and Kristi were among my first friends in York. In fact, I moved to York largely because it would give me the opportunity to live on their beautiful farm. 

Kristi is this sparking bolt of lightening, all energy and ideas and action. She's forever erecting and dismantling and planning and talking and laughing. And Jim's the clearing clouds after the storm, the calm the serenity the reflection. I don't ever think I've met a more balanced pair.

When describing my unique landlords to friends, I always characterized Jim as Farmer Hoggett from "Babe." That strong, steady, knowing voice in the midst of all the chaos. And on the farm, there's always chaos. Horses at your back door, turkeys chasing cars, dogs digging for varmints.

He handled all of it in step, with the eye of a poet. As I was scrolling through his Facebook page a while back, I found this:
"Last night, under a clear sky and a full harvest moon, our Iberia, Duchess of Blue Hound and milk cow extraordinaire, passed away suddenly, joining the other radiant stars and leaving us with glorious memories and a two-week old calf. Today was sadness and triumph, as Bibby the calf learned to drink from a bottle. Now to bed."
Have you ever read a nicer tribute to a cow?

Anyone who's been to Blue Hound can't help but come back. There's a magic to the place, created in no small part by Kristi's kinetic vision and Jim's graciousness. All are welcome, all are family. Just be kind to our animals and the land. 

Farmer Jim helps the girls
get a cow-back ride on Iberia.
Anytime I visited and Jim was around I'd be greeted with a huge smile and those sparkling blue eyes. Life was always good, according to Jim. Even when knee deep in mud with a sick cow, a wayward dog, or a fox sneaking in the chicken coop. 

He never failed to point out the great wealth that surrounded us if we just paused for a second.

Months ago while on the farm, I was down by the pond picking flowers for wedding bouquets. The night was serene, the sun just starting to set. Jim, who was often tired by then, wandered down the hill from the house. "Look between those bushes," he told me, seemingly out of nowhere. So I did, just in time to see a flock of docks landing on the water. The only sound you could hear was the whisper of their wings and the splash of the water. 

It was such a small, perfect moment. A gift.

I got a call Wednesday morning, Jim was gone. I knew even before I picked up the phone I think. Just that strange feeling you get. 

I guess you can't procrastinate forever. 

Here's what I wrote about Jim. It doesn't feel enough. Doesn't convey how highly I regard him and how much we'll all miss him. But I'm guessing no matter what I wrote, Jim would be encouraging. That's just the sort of person he was.

Here goes:

James “Jim” Frederick Maher died peacefully in the arms of his beloved wife, Kristi, at their home in Lewisberry on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

While, last year’s leukemia diagnosis wasn’t the best news, true to his optimism, sense of humor and unyielding pragmatism, Jim committed to living every dang day the best he could, right up to very the end. 

The product of a North-South marriage (his father, John Sloat Fassett Maher hailed from upstate New York while his mother, Eleanor Poindexter Maher was from Mississippi), Jim was born Feb. 2, 1949 in Hartford, Conn. His older brother Buck still hasn’t forgiven Jim for supplanting him as the baby of the family, though Jim would later get a taste of his own medicine when their little brother Tom arrived.

His childhood was split between Hartford, Mississippi and Tennessee, where he attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. 

Jim had a propensity for unique hobbies, which started early in life when he collected meat-eating plants as a kid. Throughout his life he was an actor, bathtub vintner, radio announcer, sailor, historian, poet, fisherman, cheese maker, farmer and yogi. 

A reader and a romantic, Jim’s love for J.R.R. Tolkien took him to Middle Earth itself (or at least on location in New Zealand where the movies were filmed). This trip was a bit more satisfying than his other literature-inspired adventure – a train ride across Europe on the Orient Express, which proved far more rustic and rather less elegant and mysterious than he’d envisioned.

While attending Duke University, he ran the college radio station, where he was known for playing good music (not that Top 40 stuff) and for creating a series of fake ads for Mr. Fix-It, a humble handyman who could tackle anything from open-heart surgery to disarming a nuclear bomb. 

His stage career peaked in college when he played Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” It was widely rumored that he got the part because of his ability to belch on cue. Later in life he took on the roles of Santa Claus and William Penn to entertain and educate children.

Jim didn’t have much money while attending law school at Temple University, so he had to be creative with gift giving. He once gave his best friend Chris the deed to the Island of Manhattan as a birthday present. Said he got it off an old Indian, whom he figured had pretty good claims to the land; Chris’s wife, Stefani, got the deed for Western Europe. His friends  and family have always appreciated his generosity with laughter. 

Through his career, Jim practiced law in New York City, Wilmington, Del. And Harrisburg, Pa. 

It was in Delaware that he met and married Kristi, who, after seeing Jim run, confessed to have taken up jogging in order to land a date with him. Her persistence paid off (though she hung up her jogging shoes) and the couple wed in New Castle in 1991. This wasn’t the last time Jim found himself roped into one of Kristi’s schemes; her next big idea was moving to Pennsylvania to buy a 72-acre farm. Of course, Jim was happy to follow along, becoming one of those rare breeds of lawyer-farmers you never hear about. His sister Julie says he never wanted a routine sort of life anyway.

In 2013 he retired from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, trading in his suit and trademark bow ties for boots and a cowboy hat. At Blue Hound Farm he birthed calves and kids (goat kids, that is), tucked in turkeys, milked, mowed, mucked, and on occasion, corralled a wayward pig or two. 

There are numerous adjectives that apply to Jim – kind, patient, gracious, sweet, wise and sharp-witted are among them. Maybe the best description for him is gentleman, for he was one in ever sense of the word.

He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Kristi Dimond Maher; sister, Julianne Maher of Pittsburgh; brothers Michael Maher and his wife, Beatrice, of Holland, Mich.; Poindexter “Buck” Maher of New Zealand; and Oren “Thomas” Maher of Knoxville, Tenn.; uncle Theodore Davis of Virginia Beach, Va.; numerous nieces and nephews including Susan (his long-time roller coaster buddy) and Martin Maher of Pittsburgh; and the charter members of Birdy West: Chris, Scott and Warren. 

“It is a great mistake not to stop and enjoy the spring that surrounds us ever so briefly,” Jim wrote last April. He always had a way with words. He appreciated the quiet things – the warm sun on his face, a flock of ducks landing on the pond at dusk and a walk down the lane with his dogs – and he never failed to remind others to pause and admire the wonderful world around them. It is some comfort, then, that each night when we pause to look up at the twinkling stars, we’ll see Jim’s smiling eyes shining back down on us.

Jim donated his body to Hershey Medical Center. Plans for a life celebration are pending. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to www.pawoundedwarriors.org.