Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Finding inspiration

Every writer gets depressed, right? Maybe depression and writing are linked somehow. Maybe writers are depressed (depressing?) people, or maybe our depression leads us to write. I don't know what the link is, but every other writer I know has suffered as I have lately been suffering. It's all linked to my writing, too (of course). Everything I write lately feels DUMB, feels LACKLUSTER, feels SACCHARINE. Where are the good ideas? And why aren't they in my brain?

This is how I felt last week. It should have been a great week for writing, because I was on vacation and I got to hang around the beach (Lake Michigan) for an entire week just sucking in inspiration with a few grains of sand and the smell of water, but it wasn't. Nothing came. I spent most of my time lazing around and chatting with my siblings and their spouses. I tried to write but everything was ___________ (see adjectives above or supply similar words).

And then I read a book, a small book, by a man named Peter Selgin. I attended one of his workshops a year or so ago, and I wanted to buy one of his books then, but they disappeared too quickly into the greedy hands of my classmates. I finally broke down and ordered one a few weeks ago and then finally broke down and read it last week (in the last few days of my vacation). It's called By Cunning and Craft, and it has all sorts of PRACTICAL tips for writing fiction.
Peter acknowledges that writing is not easy, but he says that it is a craft that can be learned with diligence and determination. And guess what makes a writer better? Anyone? Anyone? Yes, that's right. Practice.
So here we go. I'm really going to do it now. I'm done whining about not having any good ideas. I'm just going to write (and I'll keep Selgin's book close at hand in case I get stuck).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Career Opportunities on the Rise

I'm thinking I might be able to quit my job. I could make a whole lot more money (and grade ZERO papers) doing it too. Actually, I'm not sure about the money. I've looked around and can't find anyone else who offers the service I'm thinking of. But that could be a good thing. I'd be one of a kind. I could offer my exclusive services to the highest bidder. This is sounding better and better.

It all started about 1pm today with a nagging ache behind my right eye. At first I thought I was tired. But I tried to lie down and couldn't sleep. Chocolate didn't help; neither did a cool glass of water. And the ache grew and spread tentacles of pain up to my scalp and down around my ear. That's when I knew what this was: a barometric headache. I get one every time a storm approaches. The bigger the storm, the bigger the headache.

And even though I'm typing now through my pain (trying to ignore it), I can't help but feel a twinge of excitement. So here's my new career idea: psychic weather forecaster. Ever heard of one? I can use my pain to make money!

That's not such a novel idea, I realize. Think of the guys who walk across fire pits or swallow swords. Their pain brings in the money too. I could start small, maybe with a live feed on the internet--on this blog maybe! All I need is one of those little eyeball cameras...and a lot of time to sit in front of it reporting on the state of my head. I could give updates, maybe spend my non-headache hours making charts or those cool maps other forecasters use. I'll admit, my range of accuracy will probably be limited. I'm not traisping this head around the country in search of thunderstorms. So hopefully the locals will be financially inspired by my plight--inspired enough to send me money in gratitude for my storm forecasting headaches.

I have to say, the more I think about it, the more I realize I'm excited about the possibilities. Ooh, sharp twinge here; my vision just blanked out. I think the storm's getting close. I'm going to go try the chocolate remedy again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Trying New Things

I'm not going to lie: I am pretty proud of the fact that my kids are not finicky eaters. Honestly, I don't know if there is anything Clint and I have done to contribute to this phenomenon, but I like to think it's all due to stellar parenting--and delectable cooking--skills.

Whenever we go to a Chinese buffet, I pick a variety of foods, trying to make healthy choices and avoid the deep fried options. And when I get back to the table and look at the kids' plates, there are all sorts of weird things going on there. Tentacles sprawl like stretched out starfish on Lauren's plate, and she's made a smiley face of those sushi roll things; Jonah's got a mountain of crab legs on his plate and he bites on each section to crack it open and pull out the meat. They love to touch their food, to try new things, and the more legs and tentacles a food item has, the happier they are.

(Side note: Certain unnamed people make fun of me because 1) I don't like to eat food with visible fat and 2) I don't like to eat meat off the bone, and they insist that I'm a picky eater. I'm not picky, I'm delicate. I just don't like to eat like a caveman.)

So Lauren said she wanted to go to a sushi restaurant for her birthday this year, and how could we say no? It was her thirteenth birthday.

I had only tried sushi twice. The first time was at one of those Chinese buffets. I had watched her eating her selection, and she offered one to me. And I'm thinking, what kind of baby will I look like if I say no? I took one bite. It tasted just as bad as it smelled: exactly like the can of gold fish food on the shelf at home (not that I had EVER tasted those nasty flakes, but I couldn't ignore the odor every time I fed Fred and George Jr., may they rest in peace). The second time, my dad made the sushi rolls. He's a great cook, and after my first dubious bite, I was pleasantly surprised. It didn't taste fishy at all. I'm guessing that freshness has a bit to do with flavor in the case of seaweed rolls.

So the sushi restaurant? I was ready. We were a big group, with Mom and Dad and Ilona's family joining us as well, and Dad (the expert on sushi) ordered for us. He told the waitress we wanted the sampler "boat"--chef's choice.

When she brought it to the table, it looked beautiful. All these colors, shades of red to pink to white. Then I realized what I was seeing. The boat was stocked with little piles of quivering raw fish. I had not prepared my stomach for this. I had been gearing myself up since we walked in, telling myself that the seaweed here was probably just as fresh as the seaweed at my dad's house.

I closed my eyes and gulped. Everyone else was grabbing at little slabs of fish and swishing them around in soy sauce, wielding their chopsticks with a grace that would have made Marco Polo weep.

I swallowed hard again and passed my plate down, asking for a selection of items from the bountiful boat. When my plate got back to me, there were all these quaking pieces of raw stuff and a few seaweed rolls. I picked up my chopsticks and tried to force them into cooperation. Figuring I should start with something familiar, I tried to pick up a seaweed roll. There was nothing delicate or graceful about my attempt. I ended up mashing the roll between my chopsticks and dipping it into my dish of soy sauce and wasabi. I popped it into my mouth and chewed fast. Swallowed. Not too bad. Not too fishy.

Then I looked down at my plate. There was just one seaweed roll left, and all the others had been snatched from their berths on the boat. I had to eat the raw fish or go hungry. Lauren was chasing some little red beads around on her plate with nimble chopsticks. She must have felt my glance, for she looked up and smiled. "Mom," she said, "fish eggs!" There were a couple stuck to her bottom lip. My stomach turned over and I smiled weakly.

I had to do it. I fitted my chopsticks between my clumsy fingers and poked at the smallest pile of raw fish. After drenching it in soy sauce, I tried not to watch its slippery ascent toward my mouth. I forced my lips apart and stuck it in. I chewed. The fish melted against my teeth. It was moist and tender and surprisingly not disgusting at all. It tasted good. My senses were having a little sushi party in my mouth. But my brain was in a state of shock and it was pretty stubborn. Kir, it said, you are eating raw fish. You don't even like to look at raw stuff. You cook chicken before you cut it up so you don't have to touch raw meat. What the heck are you thinking?
I started to eat faster, my chopsticks were a bumbling blur, but as each bite passed my lips, I fought a little battle. Tastes good vs. rawness. It was tough. Finally, I swallowed the last seaweed roll and sat back in my chair.
Everyone was watching me (I don't know why) and my dad was smirking. "How was it?" he asked. And I had to admit, it was not bad at all.
I would never have thought I would say this, but raw fish tastes pretty good (and so do soy sauce and a little squirt of wasabi paste). I might even be able to eat sushi again--in about 5 years.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Finding Friends

I'm not the sort of person who stands out in a crowd. I've got a certain camouflage, I think, that allows me to blend in and do what I like to do best (except for reading, writing, and eating chocolate): observe. If you invite me to your party, you won't find a group of people standing around laughing at my jokes. You definitely won't see me dancing on a table wearing nothing but a lampshade. In fact, you probably won't see me dancing at all. It's just not pretty. You'll probably see me standing on the edge of a group, trying to look like I belong at your party, trying to act nonchalant. Trying not to look like I'm avidly watching.

I'm not saying I'm a stalker. There is no malice or obscenity in my observation. I just find people fascinating creatures, every one of them, and watching provides me with great ideas for writing!

So I don't make friends easily. Most of my friends are people I've known since I was still wearing those tights with lace ruffles on the backside and something that looked like bloated shoelaces tied around my pigtails. I've added a few friends here and there since I grew out of ruffled tights and puffy hair ties, but it's never been an easy endeavor for me.

But you want to know who my best friend is? Really? (Aside from my husband, of course.) The person whose number is most often dialed? The person who makes me laugh most? The person who answers my questions and puts up with my faults? The one who knows me inside out? My sister Ilona.

Twenty years ago, if I had somehow spied into the future and seen myself typing these words, I would have fallen on the ground laughing. Ilona and I fought all the time. We're two years apart, and we CONSTANTLY begged our parents NOT to make us share a bedroom. We're polar opposites, you know. She tried on 14 outfits every morning before school, throwing each one on the floor in disgust (which led to an eventual accumulation that some guy in goggles planted a French flag on one February--weird). I wrote lists of the outfits I'd wear each week and had them ready (in order) in the closet. She loved to stay up late. I went to bed embarrassingly early. She took sadistic pleasure in tickle torturing me and trying to spit in my laughing mouth. I don't do sick stuff like that. We argued, yelled, pulled hair, "dug" each other (with fingernails in tender areas--I had a scar on the inside of my wrist for at least 8 years). I don't think we really liked each other until we were in high school--maybe?

But today, we're inseparable. I love to spend time with friends, and I adore spending time with my family, but I think there's something special about the bond between sisters, especially sisters who have a past as tumultous as ours.

I don't want to offend anyone here, and I am sorry to the rest of you who each thought YOU were my best friend. (It's like she's number one, and you're all tied for number two.) There's just nothing I can do about it.

So thank you, Ilona, for being my complement. For having all those parties just so that I could stand on the edge of the crowd and watch your crazy friends. And thanks for inviting us over yesterday for a wonderful evening. I am so glad God made you my sister, and I am really glad you didn't kill me when we still shared a room.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Death Brush

Death brushed my shoulder in Zurich on a cloudy April morning. Seven months pregrant, my belly a flag swelling before me, I stepped into the street following the heels of a (beloved) man hurrying to buy cheeseburgers for a Euro.
This Zurich was not quaint like Salzburg and most of Bavaria. The streets were broad and modern highrises reflected metallic shadows that chilled my neck. The Golden Arches were twinned smiles in reverse though--a familiar welcome--and they beckoned me (reckless) into danger.
I am American. I don't speak Swiss. I don't speak the language of trolleymen. How was I to know that his impatientbleatbleat meant stop instead of go? Graciously forgiving most minor faults, I impose that gentility on others (often misreading). Who would plow down a girl with bouncing ringlets a wide smile a swollen belly?
I trotted into the street/the trolley's bell became a whine that didnotstop/itwascoming/Icouldn't turnback/itwasgoingtohitme
Sobbing/laughing? Angry/relieved? I felt the chill wind of the trolley passing at my heels as I tumbled running into my beloved's wiry arms. On a drear April morning in a cold city in Switzerland, my belly swollen with child, I ran faster than death.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Gift

I knew my father loved me; there was never a question about that. But I also knew--I know--he hates to shop. Today he buys everything online. He is a seasoned internet shopper and has, I'm sure, links to his favorite online stores bookmarked. The only store I've ever seen him spend time shopping in is a bookstore.
Even as a young child, I knew Mom was the one who bought Christmas and birthday presents, since Dad was clearly as surprised as we were each time the wrapping paper was torn away.

I remember my fourth birthday.
I remember hearing him pull into the driveway. Maybe I was waiting for him by the window. Maybe the scent of a baking birthday cake drifted through the house. I remember running out to greet him. He must have reached over and opened the passenger door for me. The air in the van (when I was older we called vans like that kidnapper vans, you know, the kind without any windows in the back) was slippery with summer sweat and motor oil and the peculiar scent of hot iron, the scent of wrenches and pliers baking, waiting in the hot darkness to be used on the job. He had just started an electrical company when I was four, and I remember him being gone at work until late in the evenings.
I am sure he reached out a strong hand to help me clamber up into the van and sit beside him, and I remember seeing a package on the dashboard. It was wrinkled, torn a little in the corner. Maybe there was a ribbon on it. And I know he smiled at me when I saw it, his teeth flashing white in his dark beard.
"Is that for me?" I asked, holding out eager hands. "Daddy, YOU got me a present?"
"For you, Kee," he said, passing the gift to me. He didn't make me wait for mom to watch as I opened it. He just sat back and watched.
When I ripped open the paper, I found a stuffed dog with floppy black ears and deep black eyes. I slept with that stuffed dog held tight in my arms just about every night for the next dozen years. Today my toddler sleeps with it.

I always knew my father loved me, but he had never bought me a gift. Even now, I can't think of another gift from him that has that same significance. When I see that stuffed dog, its eyes a little less shiny, its fur matted, and its nose hanging on by a few threads, I think of what it means to have a dad like that, a dad who 1)remembered my birthday, 2)did something he hated (shopping) to make it memorable, and 3)continues to shower me with his love 29 years later.

He said, "Happy Birthday, Kee," but what I heard was "I love you." And I still hear it every time I see that ragged stuffed dog, every time I kiss him goodbye, every time I see him in myself.
Thanks, Dad, for being my heart.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A painful exercise

First of all, I'd like to offer an un-sponsored commercial warning: do not apply spray-on sunscreen on a windy beach. It does not have the promised sun blocking effect, mainly because it's not on your body. It's scattered in tiny molecules all over other beach-goers, your towel, and probably your sunglasses. Also, maybe your husband who is dutifully spraying you with sunblock.
And then if you do apply the spray variety of sunblock while standing on a windy beach (and apply is a relative term here), it is probably not wise for you, if you are one of the fair skinned varieties of humans, especially those who are still (in July) whiter than said sunblock in its lotion form, to wear your smallest bikini.
Because I found out for myself just this past Sunday that these conditions taken together result in a sunburn of a furious, hotter-than-fire nature. It hurts to sleep (back or stomach). It hurts to take a shower. It hurts to move because my shirt rubs against my flaming skin. It really hurts to lie on my stomach and type this, but it hurts even more when my two year old climbs on my back, gleefully shouting "Horsie!" and bouncing up and down.
So I really don't know why I decided to go for a run tonight.
I'm a newby to the running field. But when my husband picked it up--and I mean literally PICKED IT UP, as in, "Hmm, I think I'll try running" so he goes out for a two mile run and does it in 16 minutes and comes home not even breathing hard sort of picking it up--I thought, I've been bursting my lungs for two years now, 5 days a week on the elliptical, I can do 2 miles. No problem. I ran a total of 0.274 miles before I had to stop, bent in half, wheezing like crazy. It's taken me since April to get up to 2 straight miles, running at least 3 times per week. And I tend to avoid humid days like the plague, opting to exercise inside on those days with my weights.
So today (which is, of course, hot and humid), I decided to run. With a hideous sunburn. It was one of my more horrible 25 minutes of life so far. Not as bad as childbirth, not as bad as Freshman Speech class, and not as bad as the time I got a wart removed from the ball of my left foot (the shot was what killed me). But pretty high up there on my top 50 most painful moments list.
And then I was done. And after standing in the garage to sweat and drip off the worst of the sweat, I came inside and took a shower. And guess what: I feel great now. Isn't it weird? Never thought I'd say this, but running does make you feel better.
Next time, try it with a sunburn. The payoff is even greater.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

On wrinkles

I am a purger, not a saver. I have a small container of mementos from my childhood, and each of my children has a "box" of keepsakes from babyhood and another from school. That's it. Oh, and my husband has his own box: the box of all the "Unique and Creative" decorating...ah...items he had when in his dorm room when we met.
And while that purging tendency leads to a very organized home and office, it often leads to regret as well. It's been more than once that I've looked in my closet for a certain shirt--only to recall that I donated it to Goodwill a few weeks before. And I have looked with speculation at the garbage can, wondering whether I SHOULD dig out that homework paper my son brought home--the one I just looked at and tossed--the one that now lies buried beneath coffee grounds, a banana peel, and three wadded paper napkins. Probably not. He'll bring home more papers soon enough.
How often do we throw out ideas in our writing? Too often. And how often do we regret those decisions to toss instead of keep? Ditto. It's hard, though, to find a place to store all those wrinkled pages, a place to keep them safe from coffee grounds and banana peels and wadded napkins. For me, the answer is this blog. I know that often those very ideas that seem lackluster today can have a certain gleam tomorrow, especially when they've been polished a bit.
Welcome to my wastebasket.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Finding time to write

Every workshop and lecture I've attended has emphasized the importance of daily practiced writing. This makes sense. How else can a writer create her craft? But it's summer vacation! And I've been given a blessed reprieve from reading student essays. I want to read, to sink into a good book. Writing feels like homework now, and in just three weeks, I have become far too undisciplined to do anything that smells like school.
So I carry my notebook and a good pen around with me as a goad and a threat. And I crack open another "new" book (at least I'm using the public library now--I've become so frugal). I tell myself, just one chapter and then I'll write another few pages. Then the book gets really good and so I read a few more chapters. A breeze comes in the window and teases at the edges of my notebook. I hear the flutter and it sounds like admonishment. I decide to stop reading in the middle of a chapter (they always end with cliff-hangers--can't stop there). And I put my book on the floor and pick up my pen and notebook.
I like to write on paper first. I found that out when I was writing my first novel (not yet published, but...http://www.amazon.com/A-Minor-Revolution/dp/B00124COPC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1215302870&sr=8-1. It's something, at least) that paper and pen work for me. I am a tactile person, and I like the feel of fabric and paper, beads and ribbon when I create art. And I like the sound of a pen's nib scratching paper better than the sound of keystrokes on a computer. So I begin to write.
And then magic happens. The noise around me doesn't stop. The TV is on, and my family is watching it. Jared, my two year old, climbs into my lap and gives me a sticky kiss. "Hey, mama," he says, and I hear it, but I am also in Algiers while a young private fixes the engine to his superior's Jeep. I can feel the sun baking the back of his neck and I can taste the spice in the air. My fingers feel a little greasy too as he wipes his hands on the rag tucked into his pocket. And I write.
And tomorrow, when I sit in my chair with a cup of sugared, creamed coffee beside me, maybe I'll remember this moment and leave my book on the floor.
I am a writer, and I need to write.