Monday, June 22, 2015

Turned inside out by 'Inside Out'

Courtesy of Disney Pixar
Brad and I took the girls to see "Inside Out" this weekend (Or, as Lily prefers, "Disney Pixar's Inside Out." She insists on using the long-form because it's what she's been hearing on Disney Junior for the past couple months. She might not be listening to my repeated requests not to spit on me or lick her sister or stuff the cat into my favorite tote bag, but if the TV says it – well that must be of critical importance.)

I knew, based on the preview I saw months ago, that I was going to ugly cry during "Inside Out." I mean, come on, it's literally a movie about ALL THE FEELINGS.

And I have so many feelings.

And the tagline is "Meet the Little Voices Inside Your Head."

And the name of my blog is My Inside Voices.

And it's about an 11-year-old girl struggling with change and the complications of growing up when her families moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.

And I've long been convinced that my life peaked right around 11 or 12. 

And it's about the memories we form as children and how we carry them (or lose them) as we grow older. 

And I have the wonderful/terrible duty of directly impacting the happy, heartbreaking, terrifying, infuriating, regrettable memories of two small humans. And it's a such a huge job and I often feel that I'm failing at it. 

What if there just isn't enough joy on the shelf to get them through the rigors of adolescence?

Predictably, I was crying within the first five minutes.

But I was also laughing. Because Amy Poehler is Joy and Lewis Black is Anger and Bill Hader is Fear and Mindy Kaling is disgust and they're all hilarious – even when they're just voices embodied by colorful blobs of emotion.

And then I was cry-laughing. Like when Sadness (voiced by the show-stealing Phyllis Smith of "The Office" fame) says "Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems" because it is so scarily spot-on I felt a little bit inside out myself sitting there in the movie theater.

For 94 minutes the writers of "Disney Pixar's Inside Out" were the puppeteers of my emotions – they'd tug at my heart as newborn Riley opens her eyes and sees the smiling faces of her parents for the first time and then shake my funny bone as toddler Riley goes streaking through the living room naked in full on Goofy mode (a near nightly occurrence at our house).

Emotions aside, it was fascinating to see the inner workings of the brain as interpreted by writers and animators. 

The sequence of how dreams are staged was fantastic (thanks in part to a super aloof Rainbow Unicorn) and made a dream I had last night about a literary agent calling me to discuss my manuscript even more amusing.

"Is this Susan?" she asked in a faraway voice, the cell phone she was calling from going in and out of service. "We just finished your book. It was alright. Not bad. Did you want us to glance over a second draft?"

And I had to frantically remember whether a second draft even existed (it didn't) because I figured having her "glance over" the book again would bump up her "not bad" assessment to "pretty good."

When I woke up this morning I had to laugh. Even in my wildest dreams, the news is still just "Eh, we could take it or leave it."

And that seems to be the thesis of the movie. When we're little, Joy runs the ship and all our memories, even our bad memories seem to glow. But then we get older, and Sadness takes the wheel more and more. And all the sudden all that glittered in youth turns blue as Sadness slumps about tainting everything with melancholy. 

Life goes from super awesome to just pretty good. And even when we experience those moments of super awesome as an adult, it seems they're always shadowed by self-doubt and worry and stress. 

(Even Pete Doctor, the movie's director, has these moments: "There was this really heavy pressure that whatever we were going to show had to be perfect or at least good enough to move into actual production. And yet, I was sitting there in editorial going, 'This is not working.' I was walking around that weekend ... going, 'I'm a failure. These other films were flukes. I don't know what I'm doing. I should just quit,' " he told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.)  

This realization only made me cry more because I was watching the girls watch the movie and, like Joy, wanted desperately to slow (or even stop!) the progression of Sadness in their lives. But how can I keep Sadness in her little circle so that Lily will continue leaping around the house in her Bambi costume from Halloween and Jovie will continue to celebrate pooping on the potty by analyzing the shape of each deposit ("That one looks like a sandwich!") and asking for "lemon-nems" (M&Ms)?

But the transition feels all but inevitable. 

This was made even more clear when I looked over at Lily during a part of the movie when Joy and Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong are trying desperately to get out of the Memory Dump. I was already crying (again) and, as I predicted, Lily was bawling. 

"Mom, can we go to Buffalo Wild Wings now?" she sobbed – we'd planned to take Brad there for a Father's Day dinner after the movie. 

And I asked the obvious question. "Is this making you sad?" 

And Lily nodded vigorously. And I told her we should stay just a little longer, because I was sure the movie would become happy again, and that we didn't want to miss it. 

And she agreed – somewhat reluctantly.

Because it's part Disney, we got our happy ending. Though I'm not quite sure why it was happy. I mean, is it really, truly a happy ending if the resolution is that Joy realizes she needs to make room for Sadness? 

It validated me, as an adult. But Lily, well. I'm not so sure.

At one point, I turned to Lily and whispered, "Which one do you like best? Joy?" (I mean, of course she likes Joy, I told myself. She's so fun and silly and chipper and the perfect representation of childhood. Why wouldn't Lily identify with Joy?!!?!)

"No," she whispered back. "I like Disgust. She's so pretty!"

Sigh. I need to stop overthinking things.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

That time I went pole dancing in New York (and other stories)

Photo courtesy of Kenny Louie/Flickr

A while back one of my best friends from high school suggested a girl's weekend.

I figured I'd go down to Virginia where she lives for an overnight. We could go to a yoga class, grab dinner, chat until the wee hours about the past and the present and the future. 

My friend had other plans. 

She wanted to get away. 

"Is Puerto Rico too far?" she texted.

"Maybe somewhere a little closer?" I replied, not quite able to wrap my brain around flying to an island and leaving Brad and the girls behind.

We decided on New York City. She'd take the bus and I'd take the train.

It all felt very sophisticated and other worldly.

I feel very silly writing that. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, so this wasn't exactly a country mouse in the city scenario. I frequented D.C. growing up and have visited New York, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Denver and L.A.. 

But I've lived in York for more than 10 years. A little snow globe of farms and parks and factories and subdivisions and strip malls with a clump of "city" in the middle (considering I was planning a weekend in New York, I don't feel judgmental putting city in quotes).

I've gotten used to my unfussy, unpretentious town and its practical, homey people. 

I don't know, maybe I'm a little too comfortable here.

I was anxious about taking the train. Anxious about navigating the city on my own. Anxious about all the people. Anxious about feeling so plain and uncosmopolitan in the capital of cosmopolitan. 

My friend's request that I take a pole-dancing class with her didn't help matters. It also didn't help when she begged me to take a second pole-dancing class. (My friend has been taking pole dancing classes for fitness for more than a year. I went to her showcase back to November and based on her ripped abs and ... err ... acrobatic skills, I can attest to the fitness benefits.) 

And it wasn't the fitness I was averse to as much as the, you know, pole, but I agreed to go. To both classes. I'm probably more flexible than I give myself credit for.

So before I know it it's Friday. And I'm getting on a train that whisked me past the pastures and livestock and silos of Lancaster into the bowels of New York City. And I get off the train and got swept up into the current of people, seemingly all of humanity, shuffling through Penn Station at 10 o'clock on a Friday night. 

Baptized by the chaos of Penn Station I hauled myself up to the street overwhelmed and disoriented and was relieved to see the smiling face of my friend, who, in an act of supreme serendipity, just happened to be walking past the exit I chose at that exact moment.

I caught my breath. And together we dove into New York.

As it turns out, all of humanity wasn't in Penn Station. They were mostly in Time Square, taking photos of those giant video screens and the giant buildings and wearing giant plush costumes of various super heroes and Disney Characters, or, as was the case with a pair of blonde ladies and someone's grandma, wearing nothing at all!

Here goes nothing, I told myself.

I'll attempt to be uncharacteristically brief* while recapping the (approximately) 40 hours I spent in the city. 

The Food

I guess you can't go to New York and not mention food, right? 

On Saturday, we met up with Brad's cousin on the Upper East Side and she took us to Salvo's Pizzabar and ordered this divine Chicken Francese pizza (I feel like I should mention it was off menu, which made me feel infinitely more posh) with the perfect crispy/chewy crust and gooey cheese paired with garlic and zesty lemon chicken. I'm kind of pining for it now. 

Then we met up with my friend's aunt and cousin at The View Restaurant & Lounge in the Marriott Marquis (New York's only Revolving Rooftop Restaurant and Lounge – because it's New York and why the hell not have a restaurant on the 48th floor of a building that spins 360-degrees an hour?). The view was (obviously) impressive as were the prices. We settled on one cocktail a piece (any more would've increased the minor motion sickness I was already feeling) and otherwise filled up on great conversation.

Next, it was down to Chelsea where we wandered aimlessly for a while before turning to Yelp for assistance picking out a spot for dinner. We settled on Kobeyaki, which was like a Japanese Chipotle – delicious, affordable food fast. I got a grilled vegetable roll (think sushi) which had tempura sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots, avocado, miso onion and kobeyaki (i.e.: awesome) sauce.  Endlessly yummy, I almost stopped back in on my way out of town to pick up another. And because you can't ever have enough tempura sweet potatoes, we got an order of tempura sweet potato fries to share, which were crispy on the outside, sweet and soft on the inside and tasty all around. 

We ended our Saturday night at Max Brenner in Union Square, where there was an almost two-hour wait for tables at 10:30 p.m. I opted for a to-go Pure Chocolate Granita (dark chocolate over ice) my friend opted for a glass of wine from the hotel bar. I feel I made the better choice, but then I'd pretty much do whatever evil bidding dark chocolate ever asked of me. Apparently, my soul is easily bought. 

The Show

Saturday night, inspired by my spirit mother (she probably wouldn't call herself that because she has no idea who I am and would probably think I'm a super creeper, but it's Amy Poehler), we saw Goat, an improv show, at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea. It was awesome, even when it was awkward – maybe especially when it was awkward. You could see the adrenaline pumping through the actors as they had to figure out what to do in the scene and watch the their eyes glow when they figured out their next move. Like a schizophrenic game of chess. I wanted to tag in.

The Pole Dancing

I saucy (well attempted to saucy) walked well out of my comfort zone at those two pole-dancing classes (one at S Factor and one at Body & Pole). This will surprise no one who has ever seen me dance, but I won't be quitting my night job. The sad irony was that while I could've benefitted from the saucier aspects of pole dance (booty shaking, hair flipping, felinesque crawling, pole humping, etc.), as a weary stay-at-home mom I could just not get into a mindset where I didn't feel fraudulent and ridiculous attempting these moves. 

Jovie has a major pooping-on-the-potty hurdle to overcome in our quest toward carefree underwear wearing, which means for the past couple weeks I've had actual human feces on my fingers at least every other day. And then there was Friday's mailbox ant infestation, which had me frantically trying to paper towel then dust buster ants and their eggs out of my mailbox as they frantically crawled up my arm. Neither a three-hour train ride nor the bright lights of the city were enough to remove me from the gross realities of motherhood. In my mind, I was just a sweaty, hairy, ant-and-poo covered mom in pole dancer's clothing (well, at least in exer-shorts and a tank top). Even the loud, sultry music couldn't drown out the "Doc McStuffins" theme song in my head.

And it wasn't awesome awkward like UCB improv. It was just sad awkward, like clumsy-stay-at-home-mom-takes-pole-dancing-lessons awkward. Which, as it turns out, would probably make a super awesome start for an improv show.

My problems with the pole are just symbolic of my problems in life in general. Overthinking where my feet needed to be instead of just letting them fall where gravity was going to take them anyway. Telling myself I was incapable of mastering even basic steps – my neurosis always tripping my instinct for no good reason. Who knew my trouble with savasana would also be my trouble with sexy fitness? 

The People

So many people. Seriously, all the people it seemed, in such a small area. But instead of looking at all the people as just a big old faceless sea of humanity, I tried to spot individuals. 

A few caught my eye. 

Like the little boy who stopped to help a street vendor pick up change from a tip cup that had spilled all over the sidewalk on a super-crowded section of 7th Avenue right off Time Square. His dad was pulling him away from his act of kindness – probably like any parent, worried about where to be next or terrified of losing his kid in the hoard.

There was another boy – a little older, like 9 or 10 – standing in front of a store practicing imaginary free throws while watching his reflection in the window. He was absorbed in his world, unaware of all the people walking by, confident in his ability to make shot after shot after shot. I wish I had that bravado.

And then on the subway platform this tiny, elegant woman, probably in her mid-50s, wearing a pretty A-line skirt cut at the knees and sweet little heeled shoes swaying to the blues riffs of a guy playing guitar. Her face was relaxed and smiling and she seemed completely at home and in the moment and happy to be alive. The music was good, and when the music is good, you dance whether that's at a party on on a subway platform.

The pictures

I took five pictures. Total. Two blurry shots of the view from my hotel window. The rest, I'm ashamed to admit, make it look as if my phone had been hijacked by a 13-year-old boy.

Case in point: 

So, this was the light in our hotel lobby. One might say they look like under-filled water balloons.
Others might say they're reminiscent of distended man bits.
But in my defense, Jovie kind of primed me for this sort of thinking by asking me
if she could wear her "over-balls" earlier that same day. So. I'm not totally pervy.

Here's what the mannequin at one of the pole dancing studios was wearing.
I felt it needed to be documented.
I also don't feel like I need to explain why.
*snort* That's what she said *snort*
(Side note, the door at Kobeyaki is, like, the heaviest door ever.)

The end

So, and I'm probably gonna get major eye rolls from the New York obsessed among you, but before this weekend, I was kind of in an "I can take it or leave it" sort of space when it came to the city.

You know, Meh.

But I think I get it now. Maybe just a little bit.

It's that opportunity to witness life – young, old, loud, dirty, pristine, glamorous, degenerate, beautiful, weary, frantic, racing, meandering, exciting, overwhelming, excessive, ridiculous, sweet, simple – all of it – ALL of it – every day.

This crazy-diverse grab-bag of existence packed into a little island teetering at the edge of an ocean and the edge of sanity. 

I can see why people love it so much. And I like it a little more, too.

But it's still good to be home.

*I failed.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dear writing, it's not you, it's me

Writing has been a challenge these days. 

OK. Well. That's not quite true. Writing has always been a challenge. But one that I'd always welcomed. 

But I have not welcomed the challenge recently. Recently, the ideas have been there but the will has not. The will has been straggling behind saying things like, "but I don't wanna" and "you can't make me" and "Shouldn't we just watch another episode of 'Big Love'"? and  "Fuck it. Let's watch another episode of 'Big Love."

Pardon my language.

Actually, don't. That was an appropriately used fuck it.

I never meant for my hobby to become something I'd resent and question. It was supposed to be fun. Something I looked forward to and that was only mine.

Only suddenly, it feels like a folly. This needy, self-serving monster that's always tapping my shoulder and asking for another snack. Always asking for a little extra something. A little bit more of my time and energy. It never lays off the guilt trip. Never stops bossing me around.

Writing didn't feel so much like a need for affirmation and approval and reassurance and ego until I set out looking for someone (i.e. an agent) to affirm, approve, reassure and stroke my ego. 

It was fun. And when it wasn't fun, it was cleansing. A place to sort out messes and make sense of senseless things (or at least point out the senselessness). And say the things I wanted to say without worrying about whether someone else would ever pay to read it. 

And that's the real problem, right there. I suppose that's the problem with all creative endeavors. That's why artists should be hermits rather than brands. 

Not that I'm an artist. Or a brand for that matter. 

If I were to pick a label from the list it would just be "writer" at its most basic "it-puts-the-words-on-its-page" level ("Silence of the Lambs" anyone? Anyone? Clarice? Anyone?).

So, a week or two ago, it was a long day and I had this idea for a poem. I haven't written a poem in years. In fact, I had to send a note to a friend who is an actual poet to make sure I knew what even qualified as poetry anymore. I've never been one for rhyming in any way other than obnoxiously). Based on her response (pretty much anything that is broken up in stanzas or some such can be a poem these days) I decided my poem qualified as a poem by modern standards (though maybe not by Emily Dickinson's). 

Here's my attempt to make up with writing*. 

"Cry Poem" (for lack of a better name)

I cry at everything these days.
Everything that’s not my inability to fold the fitted sheets.
Or the diaspora of toys
Always rehoming themselves underfoot.
Or the half-eaten yogurt and uneaten broccoli.
The tiny battles with tiny people.
These things are just the noise of the interstate in my front yard.
The whirling tires I never notice anymore anyway.

Yesterday, my small daughter put on my grandmother’s small gloves.
They fit her, except for the finger tips
Which were empty.
But she’s growing all day
and soon her hands will be my grandmother’s.
And by then she won’t be Cinderella waltzing around the oak tree.
And she won’t notice the magic dust that glitters on sunny days.
And for this I cry and cry.

I'm aware now that the world is immense.
An insignificant universe of ugliness
I never noticed until my small daughters.
The reckless callousness and carelessness we live by
chases me into a fort on the couch
that my small daughters made for me with a blanket
after wiping away my tears.
We should stay here forever, I tell them. Just them and me.

Because I cry at everything.
Save for all the nothing things.
I wonder if I should cap my frayed live wire nerves.
With medication.
And join a world that’s just fine.
Room temperature tap water on a hot day.
That neurological equilibrium
That feels slightly less like living.

But, I think, this is just motherhood.
Perpetually molting my thickest skin
The remaining layers thinner and thinner. Paper then tissue.
There’s no shield anymore from the little Cinderella
And her smaller sister eating a sundae with such joy,
For a moment, I remember the world before this world.
And this makes my nose red and my eyes glass.
My flickering heart is always on display now.

I dwell in the littlest things now.
Like finding a young bird, floating in the plastic pool
under the oak tree my small daughter waltzed around.
I buried the bird in the part of the yard we don’t ever tend to.
She’s back there under a short cairn
and the purple iris that were my grandmother’s favorite
and the rest of the futility I feel
and some of those tears I cry these days.

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: And this is a MUST-READ book on education and upward mobility:

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

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 ...

More from NickieI second Christopher! Ta-Nehisi Coates is required reading. Last year's Propublica series on school segregation is terrific, too.

From PatI'm assuming I missed a mention of THe Corner. If not, it's a brilliant read.
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!


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.