Saturday, June 29, 2013

My summer vacation: Dispatches from Rehoboth Beach

Yesterday we returned from a week with my family in Rehoboth Beach, Del. 

Twenty-three of us -- Brad and me, the girls, my parents, three sisters, a brother, two brothers-in-law, and various nieces, nephews, and friends -- crammed into a nine-bedroom house on a tree-lined street a few blocks from the beach. It was a good week. It only rained once, Lily saw wild dolphins for the first time ever, Jovie discovered the joy of putting sand in a bucket, and I got some much-needed quality time with my family.

I brought my laptop along thinking I would squeeze in some work at one point or another -- but (surprise, surprise) didn't feel much like turning it on. 

One afternoon while the girls were napping I decided to write the old-fashioned way -- with a pen and my trusty notebook. Here's what I came up with:

The Beach House

Gratuitous sand-covered baby butt.
The sand is everywhere -- the floor, carpets, couch and sheets. On your feet, of course, but also in your bra and hair and ears. 

Through the week it partners with the sweat from the demon sun and wears down your old skin -- commanding you to give up the neatness, the order and the crispness of life back home and succumb to the shore and a different version of clean. 

And once you give up -- once you surrender to living scrubbed brown and peeling and you sink into the old sticky cushions of that well-loved couch and agree that the heavy air being knocked around by the old ceiling fan provides just enough relief from the wool blanket day -- then vacation can begin.

Everything in this beach house speaks of that calming calamity. The clatter of doors opening and closing, in and out and in and out. You're never alone. And the layers of residents -- decades of past vacations curated in the kitchen drawers with mismatched spatulas and forgotten pot holders and bookshelves where last year's beach reads and the year's before that is waiting -- hopeful for another go around.

This old and wrinkled house is our hostess. Generous with all of her collections -- rusting bikes, cracked bowls and battered beach toys. Everything decades past it's usefulness but the gesture is still sweet and anyway you take comfort in her hospitality. That giant dining room table that fits almost everyone or the hammock where the boys pile on screaming and giggling unaware of the mosquitoes until it's too late. The beds are old, but large enough for mom, dad and the little ones to crawl in and read stories and talk about the dolphins and the sand castles.

The house has tides, too. High tide is at 8:30 when it wakes up and the babies chase each other up and down the stairs and the grownups bumble about the kitchen in search of coffee and toast.

It goes down late morning and into the afternoon as everyone parades to the beach. So, so quiet, but there's always at least one person around, opening and closing doors. Keeping its heart pumping, sweeping sand off the floors.

Tide goes up again at night -- dinner, dishes, fireflies, bedtime protests, and then of course down again when it's late and everyone asleep.

We've all found our favorite places -- pockets to retreat to when the clamoring overwhelms. One sister to the laundry room -- steaming and smelly but secluded and the last place anyone will check. I choose the sunroom, in the oppressive heat it's quiet, save for the boys always yelling outside and the radio blasting country music next door. And an owl, disgruntled by all the commotion when he's just trying to sleep.

The smokers go to the front stoop. The teenagers, the basement. We've all staked a claim and even then with 23 people you'll be interrupted. 

The 7-year-old will ask you about your book and make sure you bent the page in the right spot. He'll find the doughnuts stashed on the washing machine and take the last chocolate-chocolate one without asking his mom. Your don't say anything because it's vacation. He'll tell you the proper way to scare of zombies is with an air horn and that when his dad's sleeping he and his little brother like to sneak cookies from the kitchen. Adn then he'll point out that this is life. What's happening right now is life. The child philosopher. 

And he's right about it, too. The crescendo of noises, in and and out and in and out as three generations tolerate and embrace each other with the desperate hope that they'll have just five minutes of something sweet or funny or tender to squirrel away until the next time. 

The 7-year-old hears a song on the radio and sings the chorus squinting his eyes for affect. He grabs the empty doughnut box -- his lips lined with chocolate glaze -- and heads inside to destroy the evidence. 

And you enjoy another minute of silence before following him inside, looking for company. Leaving behind a trail of sandy footprints.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Stub story: The Decemberists March 2007

Alright, I made the commitment to write more fiction, so here's my second Stub Story. 

The stub:

The random words

The story
Ellen willed her eyelids half open as her ears sipped, then gulped the noises around her. A constellation of cell phone screens waved over her head and voices clamored over one another:

“Ohmygod is she OK?”

“Did someone call 911?”

“Did you see her fall? Don’t move her! I don’t think you’re supposed to move people when they fall.”

“I bet she broke her back, ohmygod, what if she’s paralyzed?”

“Her eyes are open – are you OK? Ma’am? Can you hear me??”

She tried to focus on any one face – but they just seemed to be floating heads in a cavernous dark.

“She’s making noises! She’s not dead!”

 “Dead? Are they talking about me? I’m not dead am I?” Ellen felt herself becoming frantic, but her thoughts were a balloon tethered to her unmoving body. She tried to reel herself in – wiggling fingers and toes. Yes. They moved.

What happened? A voice wailed in the background.

The concert.

Calliope had insisted on this concert. Begged her for weeks. Said the band had changed her life. And Ellen had laughed, because how big are the revelations of a 14 year old anyway?

“Please mom? Can I go? It’s at a Christian college, in a gym. Nothing bad will happen.”
And seeing graduation looming in just a few years Ellen had relented. Agreeing to the concert but insisting on going with her. This arrangement had not pleased Calliope – who’d spent a week debating on her outfit (a floral-print dress and boots and a cardigan) and emerged from the bathroom that night with bangs she’d just given herself. Ellen couldn’t be upset, because she looked adorable and not scandalous and she realized with each passing choice Calliope made that she was transforming from the minor decisionmaker of her own life to the major. And that was how it would be.

So they went, Ellen, Calliope and her friend Jamie. Ellen promised to remain out of sight so she scaled the bleachers in the back of the gym to the very top and watched as the two girls found a seat on the floor, waiting for the show to begin.

She relaxed watching the young people mingle and smiled at the other parents climbing up the bleachers.

But then the lights went out and the opening chords rang and all at once the benign sea of concertgoers below churned into a storm. Ellen stood, scanning for the girls only to watch them disappear into the swelling depths – swallowed by all those strangers and their hormones and their drugs and their bad intentions.

She was on the tips of her toes searching for her baby in the jowls of the monster, hoping that it would taste her youth and earnestness and spit her right back out.

But instead she found herself reeling through the dark, landing with a searing smack on the gymnasium floor.

“Mom?! MOM?!!!”

Ellen heard Calliope’s bell voice dragging her to consciousness.

“Calli? Calli, honey?”

How did she get there so quickly?

“I’m here mom.” Calli held her hand. She could feel her little girl’s soft touch. “I heard someone scream and I knew it was you. I just knew … it was so weird … I’m here.”

And Ellen smiled and returned to her body and drank in her little girl who could never be eaten alive.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A cornucopia of random thoughts

I feel like cornucopia is one of those words that should only be used seasonally -- but it is so much fun to say, I thought I'd bust it out today. 

Today, some random thoughts:

1. I'm woefully behind in my squirreling. Last I walked by them, they were golfing (and I believe I already have golfing squirrels ... let me check ... ah yes, right here). Before that, they were graduating. 

You might be amused to note that the wooden deer who hangs out with the squirrels is periodically dressing up himself. Last time he was wearing bunny ears, and when the squirrels were posing with their diplomas, he, too had on a mortarboard:

He's gonna go buck wild at beach week.
2. "Women Writers and the Optimal-Child-Count Spectrum," a recent article in the New Yorker, caught my eye for obvious reasons. It was a response to an essay posted on the Atlantic website in which author Lauren Sandler proposed that the secret to being both a mother and writer is to have just one child. 
"What Sandler’s essay implies is that, on the contrary, there may be something about the experience of motherhood that makes a woman a better writer—more deeply in touch with the deepest of human concerns and commonalities. But, at the same time, too much motherhood might swamp a potentially brilliant writer with the drudgery of diapers and Little League, reducing her to overseeing her child’s admissions essays rather than writing her own scintillating works a la Sontag or Hardwick," writes Rebecca Mead.
Motherhood -- whether you have one, two, five or 10 children -- does tends to overshadow other pursuits -- like cleaning, cooking, laundering, sleeping, bathing, and, yes, writing, too. But then I think it should overshadow other pursuits. My children weren't foisted upon me by some over-demanding boss, I chose to have them. And neither did they request to be here (please, let's just save the religious/metaphysical discussions for another day and time). While some days I do wish I could spend less time in diaper drudgery and more time on scintillating works (or, at least mildly entertaining works), I certainly don't begrudge their existence. They are my world and it's difficult to even remember the person I was before them. Like Sandler suggests, they make me a better writer. And such wonderful material they provide! Children or no children, there is never enough time for us to do the things our heart sings for us to do. So you just have to make time for it. 

3. I thought, given how much Lily loves Clifford the Big Red Dog, that I should give Norman Bridwell a second chance (you might remember a previous rant about "Clifford's Birthday (infamous) Party" -- if not, go here), so we checked out "Clifford's Good Deeds" from the library a couple weeks ago. On the third of fourth reading of the book I noticed something amusing/irritating on this page: 

That is one big dog. Right?
Clifford is attempting to help out the weak, little paper boy who is unable to throw newspapers all the way to the doorstep (they land pitifully, somewhere in the middle of the front walk). While I love the reference to newspapering, I was not as keen on this little scene: 

As if newspapers aren't in enough trouble right now,
now they're incriminated in destruction of property.
Look at that dutiful wife! Out raking leaves in lovely pink dress and heels, no less! 

My issue is not with a woman doing yard work (I love raking leaves!) but that her footwear is so inappropriate. I checked the copyright date on the book because I thought that maybe Norm was writing it back in the 1950s when, based on all the advertising I've ever seen from the time period, the only thing available for women to wear were full-skirted dresses and heels (well, and and pearls and an apron, of course). But this book was originally published in 1985 -- well into the age of ladies in pants. 

The scene isn't really helped by the cranky-looking husband inside reading his newspaper ... I mean really, could you help your lady out a little? Maybe he figured she could handle the job since there's only five leaves in the yard anyway. Or, maybe it was his birthday or Father's Day* and his only request was to be allowed to read the paper in peace while his woman did a little yard work (for once!) before returning inside to make him some roast beef and mashed potatoes. 

Brad also noted that it seemed strange that he was already reading a newspaper when one was being delivered to his house. Maybe he's like me and reads the paper a day late ... or ... could he be some very rare breed of person who gets both a morning and an afternoon paper? So many questions! 

Unless Lily insists, it's not likely that Clifford will be given a third chance in our household. And I say this as someone who has dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog at an elementary school book fair. Since I'm only 5'3" (and at the time was probably shorter) I was probably one of the least impressive Clifford the Big Red Dogs hitting the book fair circuit. I was more like Clifford the Slightly Larger Than Average Red Dog. 

* Happy Father's Day Brad and dad. You're both tireless providers -- giving up hours you'd probably rather spend outside in the great wide open to make sure your family is cared for. The girls and I are lucky to have you both in our lives.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Is it OK to talk about gun control yet?

I woke up this morning with that hungover feeling you get when you cry yourself to sleep. My eyes were hot and tired and instead of feeling rested, I felt drained. 

Before I went to bed last night I read this Washington Post story profiling Mark and Jackie Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School six months ago. 

Be warned. Lest you want to wake up feeling like I did this morning, don't read it right before going to sleep. But definitely read it. It's an incredible story -- the Barden's opened their lives and home to reporter Eli Saslow, giving him a window to what has to be the darkest minutes, hours, days and months of their lives.*

While reading, I found myself balling my hand into a fist and grinding my teeth (of course while also crying, crying, crying). 

It started with this: 
"The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say 'magazine limits' and not 'magazine bans,' to say 'gun responsibility' and never 'gun control.' When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground."
Magazine limits? Gun responsibility? Seriously?

I feel, that in the Barden's shoes, I might have had a difficult time not punching the PR person in the face. Their 7-year-old child was slaughtered along with 19 of his classmates by a gunman toting a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns and you don't want to offend anyone by suggesting that high-capacity magazines should be illegal or that "gun responsibility" is just meaningless drivel used to placate the gun lobby?

Oops, I think I just did something I've been avoiding for the last six months: Outting myself as someone who is a proponent of gun control.  

The fact that I feel more apprehensive about sharing my opinions on gun control than I did sharing with 90,000+ readers of the York Sunday News eight years ago that I used to cut myself, speaks volumes about the culture of guns in our country. I don't feel comfortable discussing the topic with family members or friends because many of them own guns and seem to have strong opinions about the possibility of any gun-related laws.**  

But when I say gun control, I'm not suggesting that guns be banned completely. That representatives of the federal government raid the homes of each and every American and take all of their firearms. Although when I say the words "gun control" I feel like that's the immediate leap opponents might make. ("It's a slippery slope!")

While I don't own any guns or have any interest in owning guns, I'm not opposed to others owning them. And, hey, I understand being a supporter of amendments -- I'm partial to the first, but I don't think it's wrong to defend the second. Our Founding Fathers were smart guys and all.

But I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that weapon sales be regulated. In fact, I'm guessing most gun owners agree. I haven't heard from anyone -- non-gun owners or gun owners -- who think people should be able to make, buy and sell bombs, for instance. So, it stands to reason that this amendment, like the other 26, is open to interpretation and ... well ... amending. 

That said, I'm furious that the chatter in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook involved people bemoaning that we were going to have to have that gun control discussion again. In the weeks after, they got bolder -- loudly protesting their opposition to any gun control and suggesting that the solution to the problem of gun violence is more guns and worse yet, guns in schools. Then the conversation was completely hijacked by those pithy marketing slogans "guns don't kill people, people kill people" or "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" or "gun control is hitting your target." And, then, in the weeks and months after Sandy Hook -- a gun and ammunition-buying frenzy. 

It feels like the lives of 20 murdered first graders just became pawns for fear mongers. And their parents and the families of the teachers and administrators who were killed, living victims of this horrendous event -- have to to couch their language and bite their tongues -- they all deserve better than that. And we're all better than that. 

I know we're all better then that. 

So how is it that the parents of Sandy Hook victims could visit Senators and representatives and go in front of Congress to plead for gun control ... excuse me, gun responsibility ... and nothing? Nothing. They've had to bare their open wounds over and over again, share pictures of their beautiful little babies, tell stories about their short lives and stories about the desolation of lives without those beautiful little babies over and over again. Be trotted around like tragic show ponies with the smallest piece of hope that they can help prevent this from happening at another school, college campus, shopping center, or movie theater, and nothing. 

And now because Congress was not courageous enough to stand up to special interests, they're visiting state houses, hoping for a different outcome. Fifty more times they'll have to tell the story, show the pictures, express their depths of their sorrow. Fifty times they'll have to listen to that agonizing list of names. 

They deserve better than that. 

They deserve to be heard, really heard. And we all need to participate in the conversation. We all need to tune out the noise of the extremes and work in the gray area to find solutions that make us all safer while adhering to our Constitutional rights. 

In one part of the story, Saslow wrote about the Bardens' nighttime routine with their two surviving children: 
"All four of them crammed into one room in a five-bedroom house, three on a queen bed and one on the futon so they could will one another through the night, Jackie up every few hours, Mark closing his eyes and thinking about Daniel, always hoping he might come to him in a dream, even though he never did." 
As I was trying to fall asleep last night, I kept thinking about the Bardens, huddled together for comfort in the darkness. That image of them in my brain spurred me to write this post -- something I'm publishing with a lot of apprehension and with many reservations. I don't know what I can do for them. They've already gotten cards, blankets, stuffed animals, and other condolences from around the country. They just want their son back, I certainly can't deliver that. 

So I thought maybe I can just start the conversation in my tiny corner of world. We can talk about gun control and it doesn't have to end in name-calling, conspiracies and fear. 

Maybe if we talk about it, the Bardens won't have to keep reliving that horrible day for the benefit of our children.

*From a journalists' perspective, I think we all feel indebted to sources like the Barden's who allow photographers and reporters to document their lives in all its facets. It takes courage to expose yourself like that, and I'm not always sure what motivates people to do it. The times I've taken that leap it's with the small hope that someone will find solace, comfort or understanding in whatever subject I'm writing about. 

**I'm not at all trying to suggest that my gun-owning friends and family members are fanatical or unreasonable. Just that it's a topic I avoid as to not introduce potential friction. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Oh the stories my ticket stubs will tell

So the original reason I created this blog was to write about writing fiction. Obviously, I've gotten a little away from that focus -- what with the squirrels and Christmas decorations and baby birds

Not only have I failed at writing fiction, I've failed at writing about writing fiction.

Brad showed me this cartoon about muses the other day. It's funny because it's true. Alas, I have to be my own armed angry muse. (Which will be a real challenge, because as you well now, I only have two arms and nobody has sent me that prosthetic arm vest I requested a couple weeks ago).

Anyway, I think I found away to solve my fiction writing problem. 

No, no, no, silly. I'm not making progress on my novel! But I thought of this fun idea to stretch my fiction muscles and maybe help me start hanging out in my right brain more often. 

I rarely throw out ticket stubs. Somehow I feel like I'll look back at them one day and they'll tell me a story about a part of my life that I'd long forgotten (I imagine my friend over at Papergreat would appreciate this). I have a bunch of them -- from concerts, movies, plane rides and other random adventures.

Anyway, I thought I'd put my stub hoarding to good use for fiction writing and blogging. 

My plan is to pick a ticket stub and write a short story about it (like, 500 words-ish). To help spice up the enterprise, I'm going to use this random word generator to come up with two words to incorporate into each story. Despite the fact that all the events actually happened, the stories will be entirely fiction (well ... you know ... as fictional as fiction stories are ... which we all know in the end aren't necessarily fictional at all). 

So here goes for the first Stub Story:

The Stub:

The random words 

The story
The box was stifling this time of year. All those tourists in their thickest winter coats crammed in – a flock of squawking chickens in the world’s smallest coop.

Walden was supposed to greet each of them – all bedraggled and laden with their NBC shopping bags and backpacks and cameras and the holiday spirit the insufferable city stuffed down their gullets. On the 70-story ride up he was supposed to share about history of the building – its Art Deco design, the famous news anchors who’d ridden that very same elevator car, the damn tree. His enthusiasm waned with each day and each ride.

He’d been on the job nine months and hadn’t bothered to dry clean the burgundy sports coat they were all forced to wear. His boss had mentioned the coffee stain on the lapel more than once, but Walden knew her real concern was the smell. He didn’t much care though. Elevator operator – excuse me – guest transportation coordinator -- was not a long-term plan. For one, he was claustrophobic. And then there was the problem of humanity en masse and that it actually made him empathize with Ted Kaczinsky. Just a little bit.

But as it turns out, it was really difficult to find work as a topiary sculptor – even in a city that specialized in unique career opportunities.

He’d come to work hungover and sullen. The first ride up was misery and the subsequent 25 left him walking a razor wire between rage and homicidal rage.

On the 26th trip a woman hair that would make Diane Ross envious stood in front of him gabbing her phone. And as more people squeezed in the car she pressed back into him. Each time he breathed in her hair got sucked into his nose.

And then a kid threw a tantrum because he was exhausted and ravenous and didn’t care about panoramic views of city. His fit sent a wave of passengers leaning toward Walden, who was in the middle of his spiel about the elevator speeds (never fast enough) when the woman with the giant hair fell back into him delivering a wad of thick, coarse hair into his mouth. He gagged.

When he got her spit-covered mane out of his mouth, he made a decision. He pulled the pair of pruning shears he’d carried in his back pocket since he was mugged and began snipping. At first just the clump he’d been forced to chew on. When nobody noticed (he continued talking about how the shape of the observation deck resembled a ship) he clipped some larger clumps.

By the time they’d reached their destination, a pile of hair lay at his feet – the back of the woman’s head had been shaped into a large phallus.

Walden admired his work -- enjoying his job for the first time ever. As the passengers exited the car the only one who noticed his sculpture was the angry kid, whose eyes bugged out of his head. Walden glanced at him and winked and put a finger to his mouth. The kid grinned – happy to be in on the conspiracy.

Walden kicked the hair out of the car, put the shears back in his pocket and pressed the down button.