Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wishing it were summer here today

I've seen the sun exactly twice in the past two weeks. And briefly at that. 

I feel it's safe to say that most residents of the East Coast are already tired of winter, which is pretty disheartening considering the solstice isn't even for another 10 days.

Conversation among my fellow stay-at-home moms has revolved around how we're trying to soak in as much of the Christmas spirit with its cheery lights and cozy smells before we hit the post-Holiday season suckfest that is the remainder of winter.

I was amused to find out today that general annoyance about the frigid, overcast days has reached my Syracuse relatives. 

My overall impression of the 'Cuse was that residents spend September to April buried under (roughly) 80 feet of snow, and, just like the Eskimos they're born with certain Polar skills. They know how to navigate treacherous terrain, just like the ice road truckers, straight out of the womb. They have more than 100 different words in their vocabulary for the word "grey" because that describes the sky 98 percent of the year. They're the Frank Lloyd Wrights of innovative snow construction.

So I was shocked to find out that my Aunt Maureen, a lifelong Syracuse resident, hated winter. Earlier today, Mom sent this email to my siblings and me:
"So yesterday Maureen and I were texting and she was talking about the bad weather in Syracuse so I suggested she write a poem or compose a song that would make us all laugh and smile-- here is her creation for your Thursday afternoon entertainment."
Winter Wonderland
 (Aunt Maureen's version is to the right) 

It seems cruel, really, that anyone living in the tundra of Upstate New York would dislike their cloudy climes.

I love mom's challenge to write your way out of the winter blues and Aunt Mo's willingness to play along with her special brand of wit. 

And, on a slightly unrelated note, Aunt Maureen doesn't know this, but one of the main characters (oh how I love this character) in my novel is named for her, so it seemed strangely fitting that her creative spirit wafted south today on an Arctic breeze. 

And in case you're wondering about that black hole of a project, my assignment this week is to write a synopsis of the novel and a query letter (thanks Beth). I'll make sure to post what I come up with soon ... cuz many of you have asked what it's about and I haven't had a succinct answer. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stub story: The Football Game

I'm in a bit of a funk these days. I don't know if it's because I'm in between projects or the impending winter or what, but I haven't really felt much like writing. 

But I still feel like I should be writing. And I guess there's no better way to de-funkify yourself than by (begrudgingly) doing the thing you feel like you're supposed to be doing even when you don't really feel much like doing it. 

So tonight I thought I'd dust off my box of ticket stubs and tackle a story I meant to write more than a year ago. For my own amusement (and maybe yours as well), I included photo illustrations. 

For those of you who know me and my family, I feel the need to point out that while there might be some familiar themes in this story, it is a work of fiction. No adorable cars were harmed in the real life.

So without further ado ...

The Stub:

The Story:

Brandon grabbed the phone vibrating on the nightstand, praying the almost soundless disturbance would not startle the baby nestled between Gemma and him. 

It was 4 in the morning. Those two must have just fallen asleep. Brandon vaguely remembered hearing the baby whimpering at midnight and then again around 2 or 3. The twilight creaking of the floor as Gemma did laps around the room hoping to soothe the fussy 7 month old stirred him slightly. 

He slipped out of bed. The dog stretched out lengthwise at Gemma's feet lifted his head halfway, confused. "Not yet buddy," he whispered and the dog yawned and lay back down. Somehow relieved that the internal clock that dictated meal times was not, in fact, broken.

Like a spider slinking across a ceiling, he slipped down the hallway, holding his breath as he passed Azalea's room. With any luck, she'd sleep another couple hours before demanding Corn Pops and cartoons at the top of her strong, 3-year-old lungs. But given the last couple days, he wasn't feeling all too lucky where the kids were concerned. 

He relaxed slightly once he made it downstairs. In the kitchen, he changed out of his pajamas, layering jeans over a pair of long johns, then a short-sleeved shirt, followed by a long-sleeved shirt, topped with his favorite jersey. He put on two pairs of socks then his shoes. Re-checked the backpack for the sweatshirt, hat, gloves and Pepto. After brushing his teeth in the powder room he headed into the garage where he flung the backpack and coat on the front seat of Gemma's beloved car and wedged a cooler filled with Miller Lites into the back, cursing the shoebox-sized trunk before slamming down the hatchback. 

The engine rasped as he turned the key. He ignored its blustering and backed out of the driveway.

He fucking hated this car. 

When they learned they were going to have a baby they decided they'd trade in Brandon's red two-door, for a more carseat-friendly SUV. Gemma never did get the hang of driving stick, plus she put on those big eyes of hers when he brought up possibly getting rid of her car. 

"But I love my car," she said. All faux frowny faced, rubbing his leg. "It's so cute."


Of course, the real weight of that decision wasn't measured until after the baby was born. And after Gemma left her job to stay at home. 

It wasn't until Brandon was the one driving the Ms. Pac-Man yellow VW Beetle to work every day, sharing the road with bearded men on Harleys and flanneled truckers in 18-wheelers that he came to terms with the full castration of parenthood. 

He wasn't looking forward to all the shit he'd hear from the guys when he pulled the thing into the parking lot at the tailgate either. But fuck that, anyway. At least he was going to the game. He hadn't been to one since before Azalea.

And after last night, he needed the game. 

He needed to talk about something other than the contents of that last diaper or the merits of Queen Elsa versus Princess Belle. He needed giddy, pre-9 a.m. inebriation and a belly full of every grilled meat imaginable. He needed to cheer for his team playing his game with tens of thousands of other fans who were just as thrilled as he was to be standing face-numbing temperatures watching the greatest show ever. People who knew how important a third-down conversion was and who would never, ever ask, "so who's winning the match?"

Most importantly, he needed to get away from That Face.

The worn, disappointed, you-really-don't-give-a-shit-about-us face that Gemma always seemed to be wearing as he walked into the house and right before he left. 

As he merged on to the deserted highway, Brandon started humming a Wham! song unconsciously. An image of the Azalea galloping around the kitchen in some strange interpretive dance tugged his lips upward for the briefest of seconds before he began punching buttons on the car stereo and turning up Public Enemy jamming through the speakers. 

With one hand drumming the steering wheel, he ate the breakfast sandwich he'd picked up at the gas station. Chugged the ice tea. 

God it was great to eat a meal in peace. Like, to be able to chew and swallow an entire bite of something without having to ask someone to get their feet off the table. Or tell them they have to eat a second green bean. Or, race for a roll of paper towels to sop up an entire glass of milk that was toppled by the 3 year old who's now screaming as if she's been doused with flaming oil. 

What was it about dinner time that made everyone lose their shit? 

Last night's dinner had ended in an unusually dramatic fashion, when, after being told that she could not have dessert unless she ate three carrots, Azalea lay down in the middle of the kitchen table screaming. Her complementary flailing sent plates of food and cups of water sailing to the floor. Not to be left out of the dramatics, the baby had given herself a pureed green-bean facial, throwing the remains of her meal on the floor as well. The only resident who seemed to be enjoying the action was the dog, who happily lapped up the smorgasbord, until the half of stick of butter he gulped down decided to make an encore appearance all over the living room rug.

Gemma looked as if she was prepared to roll up the entirety of her life in that moment like a dead mobster in a carpet.

He'd never seen her look both so defeated and so homicidal at the same time. 

So while she gave the baby a bath, he calmed Azalea, scrubbed the carpet, cleaned the kitchen and washed the dishes. 

It's just like pre-gaming he'd told her after both kids were in bed. Hoping to coax that laugh he missed. She'd feigned the smallest of smiles. 

Then resumed The Face.

And he got it. Mostly. He knew it wasn't easy at home for her. Sometimes, he found himself almost looking forward to Mondays after punishing weekends at home. 

Though it wasn't all that fun at work either. The ceaseless drumming of email. The problems left in his cubicles that his bosses expected him to solve within the day, but only after he attended eight hours of meetings first. The initiatives started by corporate that he was left to implement right away without any of the right tools or resources. 

He loved the kids. God they could be so sweet -- especially when Azalea told one of her stories or the baby giggled at him. And he loved Gemma -- the way she took care of all of them. Though the way he loved her had changed, too. Since the kids.

They both tried. Really tried to hear each other out. Be the same empathetic, supportive couple they were before kids. But now their worlds seemed so foreign to each other. Like a zookeeper trying to explain the challenges of corralling a runaway lemur to an accountant.  

Speeding down the open highway, a thread of light just starting to glow on the horizon, Brandon tried not to think about The Face. He knew he'd be seeing it for sure again that night, but for now. For now he was free. 

And the sweet release of freedom flowed through his body, loosening his bungeed shoulders, relaxing his grinding jaw. Today was gonna be great.

He was almost across the bridge over the river when he felt the car jerk. The gasping from earlier became more pronounced. Brandon smelled something burning.

He turned the hazard lights on and pulled over to the side of the road.

He popped the hood and smoke billowed off the engine. 


He tried to start the car again. Nothing.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. 

He kicked the tire. That felt good so he kicked it again.

He could call AAA. They could come and tow the car. Take him back to the house. 

He watched his whole day -- the tailgate, the game, all of it, speed away across the bridge. 

He sat down next to the car. Not wanting to make the call just yet. 

A pair of headlights came toward him and slowed as it got closer. The big SVU had an Eagles license plate and two Eagles flags flanking the driver's and passenger-side doors. It pulled over in front of Brandon.

A stocky man with jet black hair and a kelly green sweatshirt hoped out of the car. 

"Hey man, you need a hand?"

"Nah. Nah. I just need to call AAA. You going to the game?" He stood up and pointed at the man's sweatshirt.

"Yeah! Never miss one. That where you're headed?"

"Yup. Well. Probably not now. Not with this POS." Brandon kicked the tire again, Though not has hard as earlier. "It's my wife's."

He always made sure to clarify.

"Bummer. Well, can I give you a lift somewhere or something?" 

"No. Thanks, but no. I'm not far from home. My wife can come and get me and we'll get someone to tow the car. You should get going."

"Alright. You sure? It's gonna be a hell of a game."

"Yeah. Thanks again." Brandon now knew exactly how Azalea felt on that dinner table last night. He pulled out his phone as the man lumbered back to his car. Dialed home. Gemma would be annoyed he was calling so early. He could almost hear her voice. Picture The Face. 

"Wait! Hold on a second!" he yelled at the man who'd just gotten back in his car. He jogged over to the SUV. "Hey ... you think you could give me a lift to the game?" 

"Sure man! But uh ... what are you going to do about that thing?" He motioned back to Ms. Pac-Man. 

"I'll figure something out. Just give me a minute. If it's not too much trouble." 

"No trouble man. Do what you need to do."

"Do what I need to do," Brandon thought to himself. Savoring the advice. 

With that he went back to the Beetle. unloaded the cooler, his backpack, coat, CDs, umbrella and the Eagles seat covers his wife had given him last Christmas. Then he put the car in neutral and started pushing. For once he appreciated how little the car weighed. At the end of the bridge, there was a steep embankment that led down to the river blocked only by a small, tired-looking fence. Brandon stopped pushing and turned the wheel to the right. Then he got behind the car and gave it a shove. It inched forward slowly at first. Then gained speed, easily dispensing of the fence before bumbling down the hill onto an outcrop of rocks and landing in the river with a satisfying plop. 

Brandon trudged up the embankment. And looked over the side of the bridge. In the dim light he could barely see the car bobbing in the water.

The man -- Butch he soon learned -- helped him load his stuff into the back of the SUV.

"You found a good place to park your car? Don't think it will get towed do you?"

Brandon watched the bridge in the side mirror as the sun began heaving over the horizon.

"Nah. It's all good."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How our starter home became home

Earlier this week the community manager at real estate platform Urban Compass contacted me about writing a post on my starter home. 

Now, there's only been a handful of times (and by handful I'm mean, like, two times*) that a business has reached out to me asking if I could help promote their product on my site. I never know how to respond to such requests, because, well, I'm just small potatoes here and product promotion or reviews seems the stuff of much larger potatoes. 

But, if you hadn't already noticed, I'm a total sucker for sentimental walks down memory lane. And, since I just wrote about my 10th anniversary living in York, it only makes sense to reflect on the five year, eight month anniversary of moving into my first house, right? 

I love this house. In fact, I tell that to Brad on a regular basis. I imagine to the rest of the world, it's just a nondescript brick rancher.

Here it is when we moved in back in 2009.
We've since added more shrubbery and flowers to the front
(many of which I run over on a regular basis while backing out of the garage). 
... In fact, it's so nondescript that even people who have been to our house multiple times often drive right past it, which is why this past spring we painted the front door:

People often assume that our 4 year old picked the color.
Brad's a big fan of purple and he made a strong case for Grapelicious. 
To be fair to our visitors, we live in a neighborhood full of cozy little 1950s-era brick ranchers and cape cods. A place where families get their start and retirees go to downsize. 

When Brad and I were house hunting, we knew we wanted to stay relatively close to the interstate -- neither of us are from York and we frequently travel to visit family and friends in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and northeastern Pa. I wanted a yard for a dog and Brad wanted a garage. We were both wary of having a major fixer-upper, but figured we could handle some basic home improvement. 

We'd looked at some pretty rough houses before our real estate agent took us to see this house, which I didn't want to fall in love with because it was at the top end of our budget.

But there it was on this street lined with huge, old sycamores. Convenient to everything, in a great school district, with its garage and fenced-in yard just waiting for a dog to run around in it.

We were still determined not to fall in love with it. 

Here's is just one of the 11 (11!) closets in our house.
This does not count the giant pantry and
amazing built-in storage cabinets throughout the basement.
I still giggle thinking about the person
who wanted to ensure each shelf was amply lit.
We barely said a word to each other as we toured the house. Made no comment about the awesome sunroom; the hardwood floors; the bright, cheerful living room with its huge picture window; the endless basement that featured an entire hall of well-lit closets; or the towering oak tree in the back that I was already imagining hanging a tire swing in. 

When we left the house, we both sighed. What a beautiful house, but we probably shouldn't. Newlyweds on a pair of journalist's salaries should probably play it safe.

We thought we might put an offer on another smaller house we'd just looked at. It was within our price range, probably a more responsible choice. But we both knew our hearts weren't in it. 

So we decided to put an offer in. This totally shocked our agent who didn't even think we liked the house at all given how quiet we were while walking through it. 

I'd like to say we drove a hard bargain and got the price down to a number we felt comfortable with, but we didn't. We probably overpaid (OK, we definitely overpaid -- a fact that became abundantly clear when I started following the deeds listings and watched as the home prices in our neighborhood plummeted. It didn't help, either that we were both furloughed for a week within a month of moving in. Stupid recession. Anyway, we made good use of that week off by painting a 70s-era wood-paneled basement bedroom). 

All that seems like a distant memory now though. I have no regrets about buying the house we wanted. I knew it was the place for us the minute we stepped through the door. And over the years we've tackled projects both major and minor to make it our own.

The first, what we still jokingly refer to as our "Weekend Tiling Project" (it ended up taking us more than three weeks ... ahh how naive we were), was to tile the sunroom. 

I feel this picture doesn't really do this massive expanse of floor justice.
It was a big undertaking. My knees and wrists still ache thinking about it. And I was even responsible and wore knee pads:

I can tell this was a before picture because I
 still look blindly optimistic about the whole thing.
Also, the lack of tile on the floor.
We didn't own a truck or SUV, so when we needed to rent a tile saw, we rolled up to the Home Depot in the vehicle best suited for hauling heavy equipment:

I still pine for you Lime Green Beetle.
The final result was feline-approved.

Peanut Butter takes a load off after a long day of trying
to walk on wet grout, escape to the back yard and knock over water glasses.
If I remember correctly, after the weekend tiling project, we avoided projects for awhile. We probably painted a little. Maybe hired someone to install carpet in part of the basement. Added some insulation to the attic. Planted a few flowers that I promptly killed.

When I left work to stay at home with Lily three years ago, I became fixated on what would be our next major project. Transforming our kitchen and its dated, dark wood cabinets and bile-colored countertops. I'm not being overdramatic here, see:

How much more crap can they fit on their counters? You're no doubt asking yourself.  So much more stuff! 
After I found out I was pregnant with Jovie, I figured, what better time to start renovating? So without exactly asking Brad about what timeframe he had in mind for updating the kitchen, I started patching the cabinets which were covered in worm holes (somewhere, some worm hole enthusiast is sending murderous thoughts my way). The worm hole patching took months. Next, we painted the cabinets ... which also seemed to take forever. 

Then, just a month or two before Jovie was due, we buckled down. Brad's parents came down for a weekend and we finished painting the cabinets, had the new solid surface counters installed, and Brad and his dad tackled the glass tile backsplash. We also put new hardware on the cabinets and painted the rest of the kitchen. It was glorious.

No, the counters are not normally this empty. Also, don't look to closely at the floor.
Or the throw rug for that matter. Just do me a solid and don't zoom in .
I love our kitchen. It's brighter, cheerier and so much more us.

Our house isn't perfect. The pipes are prone to backups. The basement gets damp when it's monsooning. The wood floors are newborn-waking creaky and in desperate need of refinishing. The layout of our bathroom is infuriating, especially when tired parents are attempting to wrangle slippery, spazzy children post-bath. Our home is quickly being overtaken by large, plastic playthings. 

But even with two adults, two kids, two cats, an obnoxious hound and a hefty colony of house centipedes, I don't feel like we've outgrown the place. In fact, I kind of like the idea of allowing our little brick rancher to dictate the amount of stuff we actually need. I think life might be simpler that way.

It's not just the house itself either. I love watching the girls chase the dog around the oak tree in the back yard. I have big plans for the little garden shed out back that needs a new coat of paint. Same goes for the bathroom. I love anticipating the noise and silliness that comes when my siblings and parents and nieces and nephews crowd into my sunroom-turned-banquet hall for Thanksgiving. I love our neighbors and our neighborhood and all its quirky residentsI love that we have the perfect spot to watch the day go by ...

... And a place to hang our stockings (with care) ...

I suppose that technically it's our starter home because its where my family started. I prefer to just call it home because I can't imagine us anywhere else. 

The folks at Urban Compass specialize in helping New Yorkers who are apartment hunting find their ideal neighborhood. I'm no expert in New York real estate, but I can say that you won't love your house if you don't love where it's located. It does't matter how many well-lit closets there are or how many new appliances it has, you'll never truly feel at home if you don't open your heart to the people and experiences around you. 

*Back in October, a PR sort from a company called MorphSuits asked me if I was going to be posting anything about Halloween costumes, and if so, if I was interested in having them send me a costume. Here's what a MorphSuit looks like:

The world isn't ready for me (or anyone in my family, for that matter) to don a MorphSuit. Though, come to think of it, I have I have at least one nephew who, given the opportunity, might wear one of these on a daily basis. Anyway, I declined the offer.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Here's why you need to do your One Thing

When I finished the first draft of my novel, I basked in the warm glow of that success for, oh, a week or two, before I realized it was hardly finished. Not by a long shot. I mean, even as I typed the "The End" at the end, I knew it wasn't what I wanted it to be. But you ignore the prospect of editing and revisions just for a minute. You look down and admire the view on the portion of Everest that you did climb, so as to not be beaten down by the dizzying heights of the summit. Still so far, far away.

In case you think I sunk into another depressed, "why bother?" stupor, I didn't. As I've learned with this project, when there's momentum, you have to keep going. Otherwise. Well, otherwise, you'll be stuck at base camp forever.

And luckily, I've found some amazing sherpas who helped guide me through the next phase. The advice and feedback from the first two readers has been invaluable. So I'm still out here climbing. Sentence by sentence. 

Thus concludes the extended metaphor portion of this post. 

Throughout this process I've been both amused and flattered by the people who look at the mere act of finishing the extremely rough first draft of my manuscript as an amazing feat. 

Amused, because for all they know it could by 70,000+ words of drivel that Snacks could've written by accidentally pawing the keyboard while trying to lick the insides of my nasal passages (which, coincidentally, he tried to do while I typed this).

He was unusually clingy this afternoon.
Or maybe he was just looking for errant chin hairs...
And flattered, of course, because for me it was an enormous feat. But I recognize that I'm just unremarkable me in my little speck of the world who set out on this undoable project because I needed this One Thing that was just mine and mine alone. It seems strange to be complimented for such a selfish act.

But there it is. 

Anyway, for those of you who desperately crave that One Thing. Who have that persistent voice in them urging them to just do the One Thing already (you know who you are, and you know what the One Thing is), then just do it already, will you?

Seriously. There's nothing inherently "special" about me. These things don't happen by magic. You'll never be visited by an ethereal muse who whispers the words or paints the strokes or plants the garden or bakes the cake or composes the music. Never. That part is all on you. Sure, you might have the briefest of flashes of inspired phrases that seem to materialize out of the nothingness, but even that isn't magic. That's all part of the work. The seeds you planted way back when you first set out on the journey to accomplish the One Thing finally ready to be harvested at the right moment. In the right paragraph in the right chapter in the right book.

And here's the other thing, unless you're Amy Poehler or The President or you're kidnapped and held captive by fundamentalist drifters, nobody is going to ask you to do the One Thing. Not ever. Frankly, a majority of the world probably won't even care about the One Thing. And that's just fine. 

What you do is you find the people close to you who will care about the One Thing because you care about the One Thing and you whine to them about it. A lot. And then they pat you on the head and tell you to keep going. And you do. Then you whine some more. And they roll their eyes and placate you some more. Just enough so that you keep going. And you keep going.

You should also find some people who are pursuing their own Thing successfully for inspiration. They don't have to be famous, celebrity sorts. In fact, it's better if you know them, that they're like you, because then it will make the One Thing seem more possible. 

If you're really lucky, you'll find yourself a Brad who not only listens to your endless self-doubt and grousing, but also tolerates the fact that you spend most nights chained to your computer instead of doing other things, like watching sports or talking about life or doing the dishes.

Never do the One Thing in the hopes that it will get you noticed by someone else. That you'll make your millions from it. The only person who really needs to care about it is you. 

And don't wait, either. Because there's never a perfect time for One Thing doing. Never. They'll always be more work to do. Kids to raise. Floors to wash. Dogs to walk. Dinner to make. Friends to catch up with. Oil to change. Seasons and seasons and seasons of shows on Netflix to binge watch. There will always be the next thing that needs to get done until your very last breath. 

You're the only one who can make all the breaths before it count a little more. 

Do the One Thing already.

In an interview with EW about her book "Yes, Please" Amy Poehler offers this fantastic little note on artistic process:
"I always had the fantasy that I would rent a cabin in Big Sur and that I would dress for writing and I would talk to magazines about how I'd like to turn off the phone and wear comfortable sneakers! The reality is, when you have little kids, and when you're shooting a TV show, you hack away. I wrote it when I could. I had to let go of the idea that creativity comes out of stillness. I find creativity usually comes out of chaos."

This guy, when asked by a photographer from Humans of New York what he felt most guilty about, said not finishing his novel.
"I've already built the room where I'm going to write it at my house in Sag Harbor. The walls of the room are painted Venetian red. It has shelves filled with every book I ever read. There's a scallop striped Victorian chair. A little pine desk - two feet by three feet, with all my pens lined up, and an 18th Century sang de bouef vase lamp. And there's a French door with a step that goes out onto the roof so I can look at the clouds. I have everything I need. Except the time."
If you picked out paint and furnishings and lined up the pens, well, you have time to write the novel. 

And after I write all this motivational blather,
Brad pointed this out to me. Touche sign.
Both awesome and appropriate.
You can buy it here
Don't wait for your sang de boeuf vase lamp or your little pine desk. You do the One Thing with the tools you have (in my case, a laptop, kitchen table and modestly sized brain … nary a sang de boeuf vase lamp to be found!) and with the time you squirrel away from all the other nothing activities that fill a day.

I say all this with no pretenses that I'm an expert on life or art or anything really (except for maybe yelling at the kids to, for the love of god, stop screaming at each other over  whether we'll read bedtime stories on the bed versus the couch. I'm pretty good at that). If the frumpy, fur-covered, stinky-talking* stay-at-home mom from York, Pa. can finish her One Thing, well, then you can, too. 

All you have to do is stop telling yourself that it's pointless, dumb, silly or selfish to do it. Ignore your inner Stewies. Ignore all the people you imagine rolling their eyes at you. It's not for them. It's for you. Don't worry about how long it will take you to do or whether it's any good while you're doing it. You're the only person setting a deadline. You're the only critic. 

Drown all the naysaying voices out.

You only get one life in which to do your One Thing.

So just do it already.

*Lily has taken to guarding herself each morning from what is, apparently, terribly offensive morning breath. She's told me that I'm making her nose stinky and that she doesn't want to listen to my "stinky talk." So. That felt pretty good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

10 years in York County: Pass that hog maw awhile

There was this really great moment in "Parenthood" last week

Crosby (Dax Shepherd) has just seen the father he idolizes (Zeek, played by Craig T. Nelson), almost collapse on a treadmill during physical therapy following a recent heart surgery.

The pair are sitting at a bar is reminiscing about a childhood camping trip when Crosby starts opening up about his struggles -- the business he runs with his brother isn't bringing in enough money, he feels as if he's stuck under his wife's thumb and suffocated by the constant demands of his young son. The expression on Zeek's wrinkled, weary face is one of total understanding. 

He implores his son to try to enjoy his family. To have fun. "It just goes by so fast."

And the camera holds on to them both, their eyes a bit glassy, as Crosby comes to terms with the mortality of his titan of a father and Zeek realizes the circle of his life seems to be closing before he's ready.

I thought about this scene today. 

As of October 18ish, I have lived in York, Pa. for 10 years (or as Brad likes to gleefully point out, "almost a third of your life!") Anniversaries like these seem both inconsequential and monumental all at once. On the one hand 10 years isn't all that long in the grand scheme of a life or a universe. But I think in this case, with all that has happened in these particular 10 years, it feels enormous. I wonder how I squeezed so much in to such a short span. And how it feels like both a lifetime and a minute ago.

Ten years ago, after a whirlwind summer that featured a post-graduation week in Paris, copy editing bootcamp in San Jose, Calif. and a summer internship in Duluth, Minn., I took a job as a news copy editor at the York Daily Record (no, that's not the New York Daily Record, as I've had to tell plenty of disappointed people over the years). 

As it turns out, York doesn't have a whole lot in common with New York. Except for the York thing. And the stint as the nation's capital thing (New York from 1785-1790 and York from 1775-1783 as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation were also drafted and adopted here. True story.). Oh and New York is called the Big Apple and York is home to plenty of apple orchards … so. That's something.

Where were we? What makes someone who grew up in the suburbs of the actual nation's capital move to a place that's biggest (though much debated) claim to fame is that 230 years ago some guys in wigs happened to be in York when they made the first-ever reference to the "United States of America"? 

Could it that, as mentioned during my job interview multiple times, York is also home to a Harley-Davidson manufacturing plant?

Or, that the band Live originated in York? 

Or that York is just an hour from Baltimore and two hours from Philly and D.C. and three hours from New York?

No, it's because when I came up for my interview I ended up knowing several people in the newsroom from working at my college paper. And then one of those people told me about this farm he lived on. This magical place up a tree-lined lane by a geese-filled pond. Rolling hills speckled with horses. A turkey and a little jack russell terrier named Peetee chasing us up the drive.

Naturally, I invited myself to move in. And then accepted the job offer.

It worked out that I really liked the job and the people I worked with. 

But back then, this move here was only supposed to be temporary. I figured, like every young journalist starting out at a smaller paper, that I'd move on to bigger and better things. Or, anyway, end up back down in Virginia closer to my family.

This plan was only re-enforced by things like the abysmal state of Pa. interstates and York Countians refusal to use "to be" (as in the dishes need washed) and their insistence on adding the word "awhile" unnecessarily (as in, "I'll get you your drinks, awhile.") For years I referred to my state (errr .. commonwealth) of residence as Crapsylvania (state slogan: "We put the 'PA' in crappy"). Yes. I was a snob. And not an especially creative one at that.

At one point, desperate to return to my sisters, I was close to moving back down to Virginia, though even then I wondered about how we would afford to live there. How long I'd be able to put up with the traffic. Anyway, I didn't get the job. And after I received word about that, well, York it was.

See, because what happens is, you stay in a place long enough and you start forming relationships. Memories. You sink your roots. And then it grows on you. And you grow in it.

You meet your future husband. You get engaged on that farm. You get married. Buy a house. Get a dog. You start a family. And you start to think it would be nice for your kids to have ties. To have a home base. A place they can go back to.

You have this romantic notion that they'll remember searching for chipmunks at that one park. 

They'll look forward to climbing through the hay bale castle at that one pumpkin patch…

… picking the perfect Christmas tree at that one tree farm 

… and finding the best spot to sit and watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade. 

You get over the fact that you don't have a Wegman's (and will probably never have a Wegman's) and stop questioning the locals obsession with Bricker's French fries (I mean, seriously though, they're just fries) and their habit of using major roads as cheap entertainment (I'm talking about you, Rt. 30 on street rod weekend). You accept that fact that while you will never, ever enjoy the anvil of lard-fried dough that are fastnachts, food traditions are pretty cool. You look forward to passing the rotating statue of a man in singlet on Rt. 83 and to hearing the weirdest version of "Silent Night" ever thanks to the midnight steam whistle concert on Christmas Eve (although you're not sure it warrants being mentioned under the "culture" entry on York's Wikipedia page).

(But for the record, you will never, ever become fond of the perpetual off-roading that is driving on Pennsylvania highways or the photos of sweet, smiling babies posed next recently "harvested" deer.)

You can't really remember what it was like being a Virginian. It doesn't seem to matter as much about where you grew up. 

You start out this lonely, pretentious 20-something trying to figure out where you fit in in the world with some vision about what your future will look like. And how it should involve these impressive feats and grand stories. And then you realize that your life is already happening and if you just start paying attention, well, that's something worth writing about, too. 

So you make it matter where you are. 

But you still miss your family. Every day. 

You fantasize about your reunions. And the day when hanging out at the dinner table and reminiscing about your childhood is the norm, rather than an exception reserved for holidays and special occasions. You make a mental note to make sure the girls see their cousins again soon. Why haven't they invented beaming technology? Where the hell is Scotty when you need him? 

You start writing in the second person and realize you need to return to first person.

Life is a whirlwind. And all the things won't ever get done.

I don't know if it's getting older or motherhood or or life experience or York, but lately I'm realizing there's not much sense in worrying about all the things anyway. 

It's kind of nice to be in a place that focuses more on the journey than the race. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

For the love of a good chapter book

"I cried while I was reading 'Charlotte's Web' to Lily today," I told Brad the other day.

"Seriously?" he said.

"Yeah. Lily kept asking me why my nose was red and offered to get me tissues. She was worried and confused."

"Your nose does get really red when you cry." 

To which I told him that it's always felt unfair that an emotional basket case such as myself should not at least be given the power to cry neatly and discretely like those stoic eye dabbers who seem to handle sadness with grace and cool.

Given the fact that the girls have been on a bit of a "Charlotte's Web" kick, watching the movie at least three times last week, Brad was surprised that I cried over the book. Shouldn't I be used to it by now?

But it's different when you're reading it, I told him. When your little one is snuggled up next to you and you get to the part at the end where Charlotte knows she's dying but doesn't tell Wilbur, because she knows how distraught the news will make him. 

And you read this passage where Wilbur asks Charlotte why she's been such a good friend and you're filled with the memories of childhood and the perpetual sentimentality of motherhood:
"Why did you do all of this for me?" he asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you." 
"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that." 
Even now, as I read it for the 100th time, tears.

Because it sums up how fleeting our time is, right? A minute ago I was 8 or 9 reading about Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte and the Geese and Henry Fussy and the ferris wheel. And now I'm grown and sharing it with Lily and Jovie. And in a second they'll read it themselves. And then a few more minutes, and they'll be the ones crying over the miracle of friendship and the brevity of our time here. 

More so than when I was little, I relate to Charlotte. How she recognizes her own faults in a messy world and wants to do even the smallest thing to make it better. To make it matter just a little more than it did before she arrived.

So that's why I cried. And if I'm the only one here, well, just tell me enough already and point me to the nearest bottle of Zoloft.

I'm on a bit of a middle grade kick recently. Especially where friendship is the central theme. 

I just finished reading my friend Beth's excellent debut, "Pack of Dorks."

The book shares the story of Lucy, who goes from being one of the most popular girls in fourth grade to a social outcast with just one kiss. To make matters worse, Lucy's parents are distracted by the birth of her little sister, born with Down Syndrome. So she's left to navigate her new-found status on her own until, until she joins forces with the classmates she'd previously looked down on.

Just as "Charlotte's Web" tells the story of an underdog (well, underpig) who learns to love himself because a friend believed he was worthy, "Pack of Dorks" illustrates the power of a smile and the importance of making room for everyone at the (lunch) table. 

The characters only become their best selves when they're able to look past their misconceptions of those around them. What a fantastic message to share with our children. And Beth writes the story with sassiness and humor both kids and adults will appreciate. Lucy is imperfect, but trying. Just like the rest of us.

Reading "Pack of Dorks" made me remember this day back when I was 11 or 12. I was walking home from school and these two boys from my class were following behind barking at me. For two blocks. I refused to turn back to acknowledge them or let them see the tears streaming down my face. I remember the boys' names to this day, but will refrain from outing them with the hopes that they're adolescent assholery was just a phase and that they're nicer people now. 

As a tween (that term didn't really exist when I was a tween) I felt somewhat adrift. I had a friend or two, but not that type you could really count on as an ally against howling boys. At that point, my sister Sarah would've been in middle school. I'm sure had she been walking with me that day, she would've stood up for me. She's never been real tolerant of jerks. 

I hope my girls won't have to deal with jerks. But life is as long as it is short, so I suppose it's inevitable. When the day comes that they're faced with someone trying to diminish them, that they have the right friends who can build them back up. 

For that matter, I hope my girls are never the jerks. 

It's funny to re-read the books of your childhood as an adult. I don't know that I ever had an appreciation for E.B. White's simple prose, even as he laid the foundation for my love of writing.

And farms. I love this passage from "Charlotte's Web":
"The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell -- as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was alway hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep."
Since reading it, I've uncovered some other E.B. White moments in life. Like this note my sister Laura posted to Facebook recently:
"Good news. Good news. The bulbs from White Flower Farm (courtesy of Mom and Dad) arrived today. The timing couldn't be more perfect. I will bring them on Saturday so that all takers may choose! These little beauties will provide sustenance for our souls throughout the winter as we daydream of the moment their tender shoots pierce the frozen tundra and their sunny faces greet us. Hope in a box."
And the other night when Lily ran through the house shouting: 
"Come on everybody, come quickly. I want to show you something amazing. The moon! The moon! The moon! Isn't it beautiful?"
I got teary then, too (surprise, surprise). But it was too dark for Lily to see my red nose.

Lily's moon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Life as a phony fraud

This article titled "8 Practical Steps to Getting Over Your Impostor Syndrome" showed up on my Facebook feed today (shared by Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, which you should "like" if you're a girl or someone who appreciates smart girls), so I clicked on it.

Why? Because I didn't believe impostor syndrome was an actual thing and I wanted to get to the punchline.
A dog trying to be a person.
But there was no punchline. It's a thing. 

From Wikipedia
Impostor syndrome ... is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
And though it's not officially in the DSM, psychologists and other sciencey sorts "acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self doubt."

A princess trying to be a pirate.
Anyway, I'm pretty sure I have it. 

And not just me. I could name a whole slew of women who feel like (but aren't!) frauds. While the articles on Impostor Syndrome focus on professionals, I have to say that I know plenty of mothers who fit this description.
  • According to the pediatrician, our children are "growing beautifully" on the curve, yet we don't hear this as affirmation that we feed them well, instead focusing on what picky eaters they are and how they run in terror at the sight of a vegetable.
  • According to the strangers we pass at the grocery store, our children are adorable and/or well-bahaved, yet all we focus on is the cream cheese crusted on their upper lip or the tantrum they through 5 minutes ago. "They're not always like this," we reply. And while we blame ourselves for every millisecond of bad behavior, we fail to see our impact on their moments of sweetness and kindness to others.
  • According to the fact that they come over to our house, our friends might actually enjoy coming over to our house, yet we tell ourselves that they are probably judging the smallness of the house, our lack of decorating prowess, the stains on the carpet and the fuzzy spots on our kitchen floor. We never take their presence as a sign of affirmation, but rather a reminder of what is lacking or what still needs to be done.  
  • According to friends and family members, we are great moms. Our kids are lucky to have us. But we know (we KNOW!) just how mistaken they are. That if they only heard how often we explode at our kids or saw how much time we spent focused on our smartphones rather than on tending to their needs, they'd finally understand how terrible we actually are at this job. 
  • According to our kids, who offer unsolicited hugs, who crave being close to us, who miss us when we're not in earshot or eyesight, who love our macaroni and cheese (even if it's from a box) and who tell us so earnestly and often that they love us, we are more than adequate as mothers. Yet, we still think we're not good enough for them. Somehow not worthy enough.
Step two of "8 Practical Steps to Getting Over Your Impostor Syndrome" reads "When you receive positive feedback, embrace it with objectivity and internalize it. By denying it, you are hurting that person's judgement."

So each time I second-guess my friends, family, my own children -- roll my eyes at their compliments and offer only obligatory thanks without really believing it, I'm second-guessing their judgement. Devaluing their opinion.

And they're smart, competent people. The type of people I emulate. Maybe the type of people I already am. 

Of course, motherhood isn't the only place I'm often convinced I'm a fraud.

A baby trying to be a bunny.
My friend Beth* edited the first draft of my manuscript. She offered so much helpful feedback -- commenting on the sections she thought worked really well, highlighting areas of dialogue or scenes that made her laugh or cry, pointed out my overuse of dashes and underuse of commas and offered aha! fixes to awkward transitions and attributions. 

And she was so generous and supportive when she finished the whole story:
"Thank you for trusting me with your beautiful story, Sue! I love the parallels you’ve created—that seeing Daniel’s wasted life inspires Eleanor to seize hers, that the life growing in Mo carries her through the life she lost, that everyone has to decide in the end to let go of what is holding them back. It’s a story that sticks with people, one that we can all relate to…"
But. (Us frauds are always looking for the buts … we actually mentally fill in the 
'buts' before anyone ever gets a chance to add their own buts. We're kinda know-it-alls about buts) But, it wasn't perfect. 

That's not actually at all what Beth said. 

What Beth did was offer totally legitimate, constructive and spot-on advice on how to make the story stronger. 

What my brain did was morph that advice (the advice I'd asked for, by the way) into confirmation that I was a terrible writer. That the whole first part of her note where she was affirming my work, was just the pat on the head you give an incompetent person for their "effort." The latter part of the email, the part I fixated on, reflected her true feelings about my work, which was that I was redundant and had "had problem" (i.e. It would help the narrative to use a more active voice). 

Now, the former editor in me and the objective Sue knows that all her suggestions are manageable. That she's not calling for a complete overhaul of the story structure, but rather that I do some thoughtful editing to help the narrative move along at a better pace. 

The neurotic wannabe novelist in me spent the last week avoiding eye contact with my manuscript. And actually feeling embarrassed, mortified even that I'd shared it with anyone. I considered telling another friend to just stop reading it altogether so that he wasn't wasting his time. 

Who am I kidding, right? I'm not a writer.

A fake writer trying to be Cousin It.
Again, objective Sue understands this sounds extreme. And believe me, I'm not sharing this to beg for anyone's praise or reassurance. By now, it should be clear that I probably wouldn't believe anything you had to say, anyway. I'll work on that.

I'm sharing because my site's called "My Inside Voices" and my inside voices seemed an appropriate topic -- especially since my gut tells me that so many of us experience these same feelings.

"By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence. … Most people don't talk about it. Part of the experience is that they're afraid they're going to be found out." ("Feel like a Fraud?"

The feelings we suffer in silence are the ones we should talk about. So here we are. 

When I read my short story back in August, one of the other winners approached me at the end of the event and told me about an open-mic he was hosting in Lancaster for fiction writers. He suggested I come and read something. 

In that moment … despite the fact that I've been writing stories for as long as I can remember … I felt like I was finally part of the tribe. For a minute. 

Just like on those days when my girls eat their dinners, clean up their toys and go to bed without extra shenanigans, I feel like I'm doing alright as a mom. So, you can guess how often that is.

Anyway, as I was writing this post I got a note from Beth:  

"So I know you and Eleanor* are taking a break, but I can't stop thinking of your story and I really, really want you to promise not to give up on it."

Some people make it really hard to be an impostor.

* just told me my copy of Beth's first book "Pack of Dorks" shipped today! If you have any 8 to 12 year olds or appreciate great writing regardless of genre, you should check it out.  

** Eleanor is the protagonist in my story. I should probably let Beth know we got back together. I started working on those big-picture revisions last night.