Sunday, October 28, 2012

Witchy rodents and territorial pugs

I'm actually not positive that squirrels are rodents. But then I guess the taxonomy of stone critters isn't all that important anyway.

This week they're ready for Halloween, brooms and all.

Ready to take down Voldemort.
Also, while we're here, I thought it'd be fun to introduce you to another character on our daily walk.

Meet Fence Pug.

If he's outside when we walk by his house he runs up and down his fence line sticking his little snorty face through this hole to warn off potential interlopers. He's fearless! Also, loud.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Special olympian, octogenarian helping me keep the dream alive

This week I got two reminders from unexpected places that it's OK if it takes awhile for me to finish my novel.

The first was national news.

In her never-ending quest to further civil discourse and add thoughtful commentary to today's political landscape, Ann Coulter called the president a retard as an insult in a Tweet.

Luckily, someone who actually does further civil discourse and add thoughtful social commentary responded.

In an open letter, Special Olympian and Global Messenger John Franklin Stephens told Coulter, "you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much."

As it turns out, I went to high school with Stephens (when a bunch of people I went to school with kept posting links to the story on Facebook, I finally put two an two together). 

I road the bus with Frank (back then he was known as Frank -- maybe he still is?) in middle and in high school. To be honest, I don't remember a ton about him. He was very friendly and cheerful and always on the lookout for a girlfriend. I think he asked out just about every girl who road the bus with us -- myself included (although I was like a sixth or seventh draft pick). I turned him down -- never really giving him the time of day, further evidence that as enlightened as I'd like to be, I still have a long way to go.

Here's Frank in high school:
Told Ann Coulter what's up.

And, to be fair with potentially embarrassing yearbook photos, here's me freshman year.
This is before my eyebrows
had been introduced to tweezers.
In his letter, Frank says says that as someone with Down syndrome, he's continually having to overcome the public perception that his mental disability makes him dumb and shallow, but that really it just takes longer for him to process information.

I think any writer can appreciate this statement -- that sometimes it can take days, weeks, months and (in my case) years before we are able to say what we mean in the way we want to say it. 

Frank reminded me that just because it might take a while to figure out the best way to say something, doesn't mean it's not worth saying.

The second writing lesson of the week came from Ann Small Niess, a source for a story I'm working on for the Daily Record.

Niess recently completed her second book about her childhood home, the Elmwood Mansion, which is a landmark here in York. 

Niess is 89. She didn't begin writing until she was in her 80s (she compares herself to Grandma Moses). She'd never written a book before, but couldn't shake the voices out of her head. It took her five years to write her second book and she said that she must have rewritten it 10 different times. 

Why did you stick with it? I asked her.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm a determined sort of character."

So there are no excuses for me. I have another 50 years before I'm 80 -- that should give me plenty of time.

And to get more use out of the yearbook I dug out of the basement -- here's another famous Chantilly High School alum -- Napster founder Sean Parker:
Heeey - he doesn't look
anything like Justin Timberlake.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Exposing my fleshy underbelly

We took Lily and Jovie to the National Aquarium in Baltimore today. Lily loves to watch the "shish" in   the children's section of Martin Library (plus she likes the "Octonauts)" so I thought she'd enjoy seeing shish on a larger scale (hehehe) and Brad had the day off today so it was the perfect opportunity what with all the man-on-baby coverage and all.

Brad, Lily and some shish.

The day as a whole went well -- despite the fact that just 20 minutes into our tour Lily asked to go home and see Mr. Snacks. (Adventures out with a toddler and an infant are deemed a success when all parties involved have on the same clothes they started off the day with and seem to have their sense of humor in tact.) I find these days that chances are, there's no way an entire outing will go seamlessly, and that -- as is with all of life -- I just have to suck the most joy I can out of even the simplest moments.

Like when Lily shrieked with glee at the sight of turtles paddling around a tank or when the dolphins leaped out of the water and pashed (splashed) the audience. Sometimes I suck so much joy out of these moments that the joy then comes seeping out of my eyes and makes my nose a little red. 

Yeah. I'm a happy crier. What of it?

My public display of tenderness reminded me of a video from a TED conference in Texas that my sister Sarah sent me back in August. The speaker, Dr. Brene´ Brown, a research professor in the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston, talks about living life whole-heartedly. You can watch it here. It's 20 minutes long, and it's a 20 minutes well spent IMHO.

Brown talks about how important connection is, but also how difficult it can be to connect with others because of the shame and fear that we're not worthy of connection.

She says that what underpins this shame is "excruciating vulnerability." That for many of us (most of us?) the trouble with making connections is that we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen -- you know, flaws and all.

This whole concept of vulnerability hit home for me as a writer. Of course, to be a successful writer I have to be vulnerable. I have to expose my fleshy underbelly because that's where reality and truth live. That's where I'll find connection with my readers.

But even for someone who weeps in public at toddlers laughing at turtles, I still struggle with vulnerability. 

Case in point, years ago I wrote a column for the Daily Record about how I cut myself. At the time, I felt both naked and liberated knowing 90,000 of my neighbors potentially knew about the darkest part of me. And even though that stage of my life is long past, I still hesitate about reintroducing this perfect example of vulnerability and connection.

In writing that piece I was not only able to purge some of my personal shame, but also connect with others who'd found unorthodox* methods of dealing with emotional pain.

And isn't that the reason writers write?

It's why artists art.

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity and belonging," Brown said.

But it's so hard. Even when if you've already been vulnerable. Even if you wear your heart on your sleeve. Just ask Van Gogh. 

I'm so glad Sarah shared the video with our family -- such a creative and vulnerable bunch. Even if they don't recognize it in themselves.

Laura posted this bit of poetry on Facebook today:
"I have nice memories of family life occurring while I was tucked away in my bedroom playing, resting, reading... whatever it is that children do as they while away quiet hours. Muffled conversation, the smell of my mother's cooking, the sound of dishes clanking, and the movement of the bedroom door as vacuums were created and destroyed as people moved about. Never have I felt so secure in this world, so at peace. I want to thank my little Bro for handing me a little taste of that world again was glorious."
I know, right?

I want to keep this in my pocket and pull it out periodically when I need to remember what it was like being little.

Just like I want to hang Sarah's gorgeous creations in my window:

Sorry Sarah - I stole your Instagram! picture.
Check out more of her work.

I think we're all capable of forming connections with the world at large through some medium or another -- whether we're aware we're doing it or not.

And when we're vulnerable -- when we expose our weaknesses -- I think our shared experience is richer. 

During her lecture, Brown talked about the root of the word courage:

"To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart."

Aren't those the only types of stories worth hearing anyway?

*Yes, that was a self-conscious attempt at irreverent humor 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Proof this noveling and mothering business can be done

It was back to the grocery store on Friday (this time no lost muffins or sandwich bags!) where I ran into a former co-worker who told me she was in the process of self-publishing a novel she'd recently finished.

She's a stay-at-home mom and her son is Lily's age. The fact that she was able to complete a novel while mom-ing is both amazing and inspiring to me. I asked her how she did it -- and she said she's been telling people she just neglected her son for six months (he looked very well tended to, so she might have been exaggerating). She then went on to say she just had a bunch of characters who wouldn't leave her alone (hmm ... is this a common problem among mothers?) and now, 65,000 words later, she has a book. 

I've been thinking about my novel an awful lot lately. Thinking being the operative word. I have a mental block when it comes to actually opening the story file and putting all of that thinking to work. I'm worried that my characters aren't as noisy as they used to be. Or that the story is going somewhere else that would negate the work I've already done. 

Also, I'm tired. Right now, for instance, my eyes are open just wide enough to allow me to see the computer screen. It feels like there are dumb bells dangling from my eyelids. 

Before I had children I never knew how much I loved my bed. And I'm not even being cute here. I mean I really, really love my bed and the promise of sleep that it brings every night. Every night when I flop my head on my pillow I let out a sigh as heavy as the day is hectic (read: very heavy). 

Of course, these days Jovie does not have the same appreciation for sleep. We have only ourselves to blame for the fact that she hasn't learned to celebrate a long night of sleep. I should be letting her cry it on out when she wakes up at 1 a.m. expecting something to eat, but because she shares a room with us the persistent and pathetic wailing in combination with my desperation to go back to sleep means she wins every time. 

Bossy baby.

It won't be like this forever though. At least that's what I tell myself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On squirrels in bears' clothing and breathing

I met one of the squirrel ladies and got some answers about her little stone friends. More on that in a minute. First gourd sorcery (gourd-cery?).

After Friday's post I was all but convinced that the ill-gotten offspring of last year's pumpkin was indeed cursed. Not only had the garden clippers disappeared, but I lost a bag of groceries that contained sandwich bags and a much-needed blueberry muffin.

Upon returning home from the grocery store I had to unload the car to the chorus of two screaming babies as my blood sugar dipped to cranky new lows.

After throwing ice cream in the freezer and milk in the fridge I started scanning the house and realized the levels of crusty-ness were unacceptable - especially given the fact that Brad's parents were spending the weekend with us. How the hell was I going to make up for weeks (ok months) of neglect while tending to the girls and wrapping up my freelancing duties?

Commence panic. Blame pumpkin.

Of course after I put the girls down for their naps, ate lunch and got some work done the outlook got a little brighter. The house didn't get any cleaner ... But maybe I wasn't as worried about it.

Anyway, I was in a better state of mind when I headed out on the walk. Good enough that when I saw the squirrel lady out raking her leaves by the street I decided to get some answers.

I stopped and told her how much I loved her squirrels and how I looked forward to walking past her house every day. She seemed so pleased that I stopped and said thanks for letting her know that I enjoyed the little guys.

Then I told her I had a confession: I'd been taking pictures of the squirrels.

She laughed and said that's fine. She's seen people taking pictures from their cars.
"They're probably on the internet," she said.

At which point I made another confession. Yes, they were definitely on the internet.
She was just happy people liked them so much. I asked the story. She said dressing up the squirrels started out as a silly one-time thing that snowballed when neighbors started making suggestions for squirrel ensembles. They got clothes from the now-defunct Boyd's Bears and from Build-a-Bear.

I had so many more questions but she had a yard full of leaves and I had a strollerful of kids so on I went. As I left she told me she wouldn't think I was weird if I took pictures. 

Which is great news, cuz now I can get closer to the squirrels and take less pixelated pictures. Like this one:  

Even a squirrels gotta rake.
Getting to meet the squirrel lady put me in a much better mood on Friday. It was a good reminder to talk to more strangers. 

Speaking of talking to strangers, one of the joys of being a journalist is the opportunity to talk to people from different backgrounds about subjects they are passionate about, which inevitably results in a good lesson learned or a reminder about how to live better or somesuch.

 Last week I interviewed entrepreneur, author and former journalist Tim Berry for a blog post on how to have a life while running your own business. At the end of the interview he mentioned some advice he got from his 9-year-old grandson for when you're stressed (or in his grandson's case, misbehaving): Stop. Breathe. Think.

If I'd done that on Friday instead of blaming the pumpkin for lost items, I probably would've found these sooner:

Behold! The lost garden clippers.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The modest-sized pumpkin caper (or is it the modest-sized pumpkin curse?!)

Lily is unhappy about being implicated in the crime.
Pumpkin stem dripping
with guilt (or accusation?).
Well. I did it. 

Two  of last year's pumpkin's offspring had turned orange so today, armed with a pair of garden clippers I cut them of the vine. 

In a controversial move, I climbed my pile of composting leaves to nab the pumpkin dangling on my neighbor's side of the fence. That one's pictured at top left. Look at how cute they are on my stoop.

I'm not proud of the move. But, if it's any consolation to those who would have me tarred and feathered, in an act of instant karma, I lost the garden clippers. I've retraced my steps from the pumpkins to the front stoop three times and haven't found them. 

Also, my right eye hasn't stopped itching since the pumpkin confiscation. What more pestilence will this ill-gotten pumpkin rain down on our household through the month? I shudder to think. 

 I did leave the still-green third pumpkin in the neighbor's yard -- hoping they will see it as a gift and/or consolation prize of sorts. 

See. I'm not a total criminal.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Another day, another walk, another shirt

During today's walk one of my neighbors yelled across the street, "You have it made!"

I considered the situation: Me covered in baby spit up, pushing the double stroller while carrying a bag of dog poo in one hand and straining to prevent Snacks from leaping in front of an oncoming truck with the other.

I laughed, thinking he was joking. But then he went on about how great it must be that the dog was pulling the stroller for me -- you know, like a sled dog.

Sigh. Things just aren't always as they seem.

Snacks was definitely, how shall we say, spirited, during today's work. Blame that on having not had a walk in a few days. He plowed ahead on the street with the eagerness of a husky about to win the Iditarod -- if said husky also stopped frequently to pee on rocks and piles of leafs and also growl at pumpkins (Snacks, is highly suspicious of jack-o-lanterns). 

Oh, and also, he, too, is covered in spit-up:

Note baby spit-up on left haunch.
As you might have noticed, Jovie has been quite productive in the spit-up department today. In fact, I was on my second shirt of the day (the first had not only fallen victim to Jovie, but also Lily, who inexplicably decided to smear yogurt all over herself, the high chair and me rather then eating it at lunch). 

Other observations from today's walk:

The squirrels are ready for playoff season:
He bats for the blue team.
He's the catcher for the blue team.
In case you're wondering why my squirrel pictures are so pixelated, it's because I try to snap photos of them casually, so I'm never close enough and never do too much zooming (the dog yanking on my arm doesn't help matters). I already feel kind of shady snapping pictures of my neighbor's house, so I don't like to linger too long. I know one day one of the squirrel ladies will come out and question my ongoing surveillance.

At the crazy kids' house there were at least 10 bicycles and various other wheeled conveyance littering the front yard. Garage clean-out day? Does that seem like an unusual number of bicycles for a family of five (by my estimate?).

Today was garbage day, which mean's last night was prime time for all the rusted out pickups that roam the neighborhood on Garbage Day Eve collecting rejected items (like my old screen door, for instance, which was nabbed within minutes of me dragging it to the curb). So I was shocked to see this in front of the dog trainer's house:

It works!
That's right, a free, functional AC, just left there! Maybe the trash pickers are getting a little choosier. Anyway, if you're looking for a window unit, let me know.

Upon returning home from my walk, I found this in my mailbox:

Is Brad planning some surgery I'm unaware of?
Apparently, Parenting isn't aware that I'm a budding feminist or else they wouldn't have referred to me (at least I presume they're trying to reach me) as Mrs. Brad Jennings. TWICE! This reminded me to tease to a future blog post: My letter to Goodyear. The other day while continuing to bristle over the whole tire-cident of last week, I entertained myself for a good part of the day by composing a letter to Goodyear, thanking them for saving me from my small, female brain. Stay tuned.

And to come full circle with neighbors yelling at me during my walk - a few weeks ago another neighbor and blog reader shouted at me from her front porch: "You finish that novel yet?"

Crap. People remembered I said I was gonna do that? 

Not only have I not been writing that novel. I've also neglected writing about writing that novel. I got an e-mail this week from the National Write a Novel in a Month folks reminding me that NaNoWriMo starts in a month. In a moment of procrastination, despair and sanity-saving, I deleted the it. Sleep is a precious commodity around here these days, that's being rapidly depleted by things like parenting, freelancing, cleaning, cooking and walking. In theory, the idea of participating in "30 days and nights of literary abandon" sounds like fun (and last year it helped me put a significant dent in the novel). However, I feel the girls do not deserve 30 days and nights of cranky mothering. 

Maybe next year.