November 9, 2009
I married a Nordic god. He’s tall, blond, rugged, chiseled . . . all those things you read about in a romance novel that make you sigh. He’s also brilliant, which is a good thing in the Oracle database world.
Unfortunately, he suffers from what many brilliant people suffer from . . . it’s a little something I call “the butterfly effect.” (No, not the real butterfly effect . . . something else entirely as you will see.)
In his Belgariad series, David Eddings describes a situation when the protagonist, Garion, is coming to terms with his powers. He has embarked on a quest with a group of warriors. On the journey, they rescue and adopt a young colt.
Garion, unsupervised, decides he will attempt to hurl a boulder with his mind. Aparently in the world of magic, the same laws of physics apply as in the normal world. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The boulder is tossed and Garion finds himself sunk into the ground to his neck and unable to move.
Being the wizard that he is, the boy telepathically summons his horse to go for help. He links his mind with that of the colt and sees . . . flowers, butterflies, bees, birds . . . and senses the young colt scampering off in pursuit of these follies instead of bringing the trapped Garion the help he needs.
This, my friends, is the butterfly effect. And my husband has made it a sport. He, in fact, is its top athlete.
He will exit the front door. His destination: mailbox. Distance: fifty yards. Twenty minutes will go by. Twenty become thirty. Thirty become forty. I’ll peek out to check on him only to find he is standing waist high in prairie grass studying a spider web or a sapling or a flower in our daughter’s butterfly garden, a stack of mail tucked safely under his arm.
He is a considerate man, my husband. “Do you need anything, honey?” he asks. “Love a Diet Coke,” I say. “Sure thing. Right away.”
One hour later, he’ll join me in the living room, knowing only that we spoke sometime earlier . . . although he can’t quite remember what was said.
If we go to Jamestown or Yorktown to see the sites or on a guided tour, he lags behind, savoring every moment, examining every artifact. When he’s done with that, he studies the trees and the dirt and the plants and anything else he can see or touch or smell.
Now, you may think I’m poking fun at him . . . and I guess I am. But what you need to know is that these things set an example for me.
In her book, If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland stresses the importance of recognizing the need to pay attention to “now.” “What is happening to me now.” She recognized that writers spend a lot of time inside their own heads, hosting conversations between characters, dreaming of plot, pushing forward. We forget to stop and smell the roses. And sometimes, the best ideas for scene description or mood in a chapter can come from the things we observe if we’ll only take the time to look.
I try to be like my husband. I try to be more observant. Often I fall short. I cannot be the athlete. I can only be the athletic supporter.
What about you? Is there someone who sets an example for you, forces you to slow down a little bit? Someone who influences you in weird ways?
I’d love to hear about it.
May 26, 2008
He works in produce under a cloud of vegetable matter, avoiding shopping carts filled with all the things you can get at Super Wal-Mart. He is an island unto himself, never making eye contact with shoppers, never speaking to co-workers except through the subtle arch of an eyebrow or the barely perceptible lift of one shoulder. Screaming children do not faze him. Obese women on cabbage diets do not deter him from his goal…restocking the bananas.
Wheeled carts stacked to the toppling point with boxes bearing the DOLE BANANAS logo make their way from the back room, propelled past the nuts, garlic, potatoes, and onion bins to the enormous banana island that holds the place of honor in the center of the produce section.
One can feel the envy of the other produce workers as Banana Man maneuvers his load through throngs of customers ready to start their Memorial Day drinking early…tapping their toes as they await the latest shipment of non-organic bananas from Cuba…or somewhere. “If only I could be Banana Man for a day,” the other workers, shelving pre-packaged spinach and field greens say to themselves.
But Banana Man doesn’t hear this. He pushes back the top of the first box, his eyes focused on a point on the horizon somewhere over behind the seafood counter, and pulls bunches, two at a time, from the box. He moves quickly, nothing but a torso and legs in his dark blue shirt and khaki trousers…his hands are nothing but a blur. He turns on his heel and is gone, already on his way to fetch the next cart as the banana crowd sighs, “Oh my. Look at this, thirty-three cents a pound.”
I didn’t realize I noticed him or the ritual “unpacking of the bananas” until he was gone. And I didn’t realize I missed him until I saw him last week, back in produce, handling a tomato. “What,” I wondered, “debauchery is this? Where has he been and what is he doing with a tomato?”
I don’t know what he was doing handling that tomato. Chances are I’ll never know. But he is a character I’ve come to rely on here in the great state of Virginia. He helps to define my new home and he gives me something to wonder about. I’ve made up his whole story… where he came from and what he does after he goes home, where he was raised and why he likes produce so much.
Banana Man, what I know of him in the real world, appears to be anti-social. He does not smile. I’ve smiled at him a few times, desiring to know more about this bearer of produce. But he shuns me as he shuns all other shoppers, preferring instead to do his work…and only his work.
So why am I telling you about Banana Man? Because he is fascinating…like so many other people who carry out their jobs day after day…unnoticed and underappreciated. And because he inspires me. He reminds me to look to my environment for inspiration. Amazing people are everywhere…and it is imperative that a writer remember that.
May 9, 2008
Insomnia is a fickle thing. At times I’ll go for months unmolested by thoughts refusing to stay below the surface as I sleep. At other times, the beast rears its ugly head and I spend the night awake, tossing and turning and worrying about things over which I have no control. As I age, alongside my husband of 16 years, I can’t help but notice he’s afflicted with this condition on occasion as well. And even more interesting than this, is the fact that, once in awhile, we are afflicted at the same time.
I’m not sure which is worse…lying awake in the middle of the night as the clocks tick in an endless cadence, marking time that passes too slowly…or awakening an hour or two before dawn, wondering if going back to sleep is even worth the trouble.
Gone are the days when four in the morning felt like the middle of the night. Now I think about walking the dog or writing a chapter or blogging or answering e-mail. I think of all the productive things I could be doing with my time besides sleeping.
Last week, as my husband and I suffered a case of co-dependent early morning insomnia, we stumbled downstairs and cranked up the satellite as the coffee pot percolated and the dogs found comfy places on the sofa—clearly, insomnia is never a problem for a dog—to go back to sleep.
Infomercials dominate the airwaves before dawn, taking advantage of bleary-eyed insomniacs with promises that “This product will make your life easier…or your money back.”
Well, I love my Swiffer, but I can’t exactly say its made my life easier.
But that was before I heard about Tater Mitts. Have you heard of the Tater Mitts? Have you reserved your pair yet? Tater Mitts are a handy pair of gloves with steel wool on the outside. Just put on the gloves, pick up a potato, squish it around in your hands and…PRESTO!! The potato is free of that filthy peel.
I’m so stupid. All these years I’ve been using a potato peeler which could have flown out of my hands at any given moment and lodged in my neighbor’s eye. It’s true. I’ve been endangering the whole world with my reckless method of peeling potatoes.
Wouldn’t it be nice for writers if the reading public was as gullible as the infomercial quacks believe the entire world to be? I could say “Read my book-it will change your life.” Or I could pay people to say “You won’t believe the amazing things this book can do for you.” Or how about, “I never knew my life was so empty until I read “The Deputy’s Widow””
Nah, come to think of it, I wouldn’t respect an ignorant reading audience. I prefer readers who say, “I would have done this differently.” Or “This part was good, but try this.”
Writers live in a world where their product has to stand alone. The purpose of fiction can be one of two things: to prove a point, or to entertain. I prefer to read fiction for entertainment and I try to write fiction that accomplishes the same. I can’t promise a reader a good book and then not deliver. Why? Because readers are smart. And they read to be entertained. And they write reviews.
The morning of the Tater Mitts infomercial was rare. Normally, I pick up a book when I can’t sleep. I pick up a book and let myself sink into its world…because a writer is someone who delivers. There are no money-back guarantees. There are no paid celebrities with overly tight faces telling me this book will change my life. There’s just a writer’s work…and I know a little something about that…the sweat, the agony, the pressure.
You can keep your Tater Mitts. I’ll use a potato peeler and read a good book, thank you very much.
April 29, 2008
April 29, 2008
The power went out over and over again shortly after we moved here. It’s a problem, I’m told, with being close to the forest in an area where it storms. The soil is rich, but loose. And when the spring rains come, trees fall.
It is unlike Nebraska, my home, where the branches are snapped from the trunks and tossed about. Here, in Virginia, the branches hold but the tree falls…onto power lines. No power means no water…as our supply comes from an electrical pump. So last year, when the spring rains came, we bought a generator and waited for it to rain.
I believe last summer’s drought was the worst in quite awhile. Our garden died. Atlanta’s water supply threatened to dry up. And that damned generator sat…a $700 dollar investment taking up space once used for children’s bicycles.
It stormed here last night. The soil, unable to keep its grip on the enormous roots of tall trees, let go. And trees fell…on top of cars, houses, fences…and power lines.
Our generator worked on the first try. After a year of sitting in wait, it started…finally of some use. It’s back in the shed today, resting up for the next storm, no doubt.
But I can’t help thinking about that generator today as I sit down to write. I have notebooks filled with drafts I’ve tossed aside, taking up space on shelves I could use for other things. And yet, like that stupid generator, they are an investment; of time and of creativity. So I’ll let them stay where they are to remain exactly what they are…a cache of ideas and inspiration for days when my power goes out.
April 21, 2008
Falling Out of Bed
When the house shakes at 3:00 in the morning my first thought, since I don’t live anywhere near a fault line, is “thunderstorm” or, since I live in redneck central, “the neighbors are shooting skeet in their backyard again.” I don’t believe I’ve ever thought to myself “Oh, dear. The dog has fallen out of bed.” And yet….
Sigh. And yet…it happened. The King of Our Beasts, the one hundred pounder, appropriately named Apollo, tumbled from our king sized bed, onto the floor. The house shook violently for a moment. When the aftershocks subsided, my husband sat up and said, “Did you hear something?”
Apollo was ok, too tired to do much of anything except moan a little at the disturbance before rolling over exactly where he landed and falling asleep.
“The dog fell,” I said. “And now he’s gone to sleep again.” I was leaning over the bed and looking at the great mound of black muscle spread eagled, feet up in the air, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth…snoring.
My husband smiled a little and lay down. “That is so him.”
And it is. It is so Apollo to fall out of bed in the middle of the night. But it is even more him to shrug off the interruption in his routine and make the best of the situation. If he can’t sleep in the bed, he’ll sleep on the floor…happily.
So what about me, the writer? If I can’t be a best seller, am I content for mid-list? If I can’t be mid-list, am I content with the simple honor of being published? If Arctic Wolf hadn’t signed me, would I have had the courage to self-publish?
Occasionally, I get frustrated. I feel like a failure. I want success; but in this new, unexplored territory, I don’t know how to measure it.
Today I find myself wondering how my dog measures it…I think success to him is having someplace where he can stretch out. And he stretches out no matter where he is. He is happy no matter what…even if he has fallen out of bed. The old saying, “Bloom where you are planted,” is his bumper sticker.
And so I sigh again today. It is humbling to take a lesson from a dog…especially one with no grace…and a tongue the size of Delaware. But as I look into those big, vacant, brown eyes, I can’t help but think that this creature is a good influence on me. But don’t tell anyone I said so.
April 15, 2008
Rolling in Dead Things
My dog got off his lead this morning. When he finally decided to stop running around and return home, he was wearing a lei comprised of grass, something resembling a dead rodent, and feces from an unknown species. Fortunately, it was all coagulated in his choke collar, so I removed that and tied him to a tree to hose him off.
What is it, I wondered, gagging on the smell, that entices dogs to roll in dead things? Growing up, I had a dog that tried to roll in the rancid grass clippings swarming with flies in the back alleyway. Another dog’s poop…she loved it. Dead possum? Oh boy!! She was a small dog and easy to manage on-lead, so we avoided much of the fur sticking goo she was desperate to coat herself in.
Nowadays, I have three dogs. And they’re quite large. Upon encountering a dead squirrel or flattened snake on the road, any of the three will drop a front leg and put rub a shoulder in it, trying to coat themselves with the stench.
No wonder cat lovers ridicule those of us with dogs. No wonder some people choose to keep their animals outdoors. I can’t do that. My dogs…all three of them…are my constant companions. I couldn’t make it through a day without them.
So before I pass judgment on my smelly friends, I guess I’ll take a look at myself. Some might look at me and wonder why I choose the write the things I write. Why would I opt to write about murder, about crime, about adultery? These aren’t things one would choose to discuss in polite society. These aren’t things we normally encounter except on daytime TV, primetime crime dramas, or on the news. Yet I delve into these topics with relish, thinking up new ways to torture, kill, poison, or maim someone. It’s my own method of “rolling in dead things,” if you will….except no one ties me to a tree and hoses me off when I’m done.
My dog is fresh and clean now. He’s inside, resting on his cushion and hating me for taking away his smelly necklace. And me…I’m fixing to roll in my own dead things today.
April 14, 2008
My oldest child is 15, at the stage of life where much of his time is spent in his room brooding over the meaning of his existence-wondering how these strange people he calls his parents could have produced one such as him: normal.
It is with awe that I watch him change from boy to man, from child to adult-the change in interests, the difference in how he solves problems, relates to his siblings. I am proud.
This summer, he will be left over a thousand miles from us. We will drop him off and trust that the teachings and lectures and discipline we’ve offered over these 15 years have served their purpose. He will be with friends in the city.
As I think about that trip-the importance of it, the reality of it, the necessity of it for a boy on the threshold of manhood; I don’t think about the trouble he could get into. I don’t worry that he will make bad decisions. I don’t worry that he will be homesick. I know too well his level of responsibility, the dry wit that sees him through every situation with his own warped form of optimism.
Rather, I worry about how he will experience these friends he left behind two years ago. I think of the things they did at ages 12 and 13 and recognize that the gap from there to here is a big one. Friendships evolve as children evolve. As adult features push out from childlike faces, so too do the mannerisms and points of view of the adult emerge from the personality of the child.
And I suppose this is what I worry about as my son prepares to spend weeks away from me this summer. We talk a lot, he and I…about everything. And as he has grown, I have grown. And so, our relationship has evolved. But what about these friends he has not seen for years. Will they relate to one another in the same way? Of course not. Without being present in their lives, he has missed out on the evolution that has no doubt taken place within the workings of the group. And although I know this will not be a disappointment to him, I know he will, on some level, feel the strain of it and wonder if all childhood friendships end after one moves away. Perhaps he will mourn a little. Perhaps they will find new ground on which to build a friendship. Only time will tell.
As I think about my oldest child today, I think about the lessons he can teach me about my work; my writing. As much as I hate sitting with my hands on the keyboard some days, I know it must be done. Without the discipline, evolution in my work cannot occur. What I write today will never improve unless I work at it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
And so, I’d better stop all this musing and get back to work…or I’ll stay a monkey forever.
April 10, 2008
A game was played last night in the mist and rain. Spectators sat huddled under umbrellas and blankets, trying to keep dry. The players were all aged 11 or 12 and growing frustrated with the wetness of the ball, how hard it was to throw and catch. Those of us with children on the team watched from the stands, hoping they would pull it together to get through the last inning.
The pitcher was having none of it. He grew more and more frustrated as the ball slipped from his hand during his pitches. He’d throw his arms in the air, sink to his knees, moan out loud. And all the while, the parents in the stands shouted their reassurances. “It’ll be alright. You can do it. Hang in there.”
His mother wrung her hands, wondering if she should be embarrassed about his behavior. Be embarrassed why? I wondered. Because he is behaving like he is 12? So the parents, dripping and wet and miserable, reassured her too.
At last, the pitcher dropped to his knees with an “ankle injury.” And, truth be told, it was the most mysterious ankle injury I’d ever seen. It happened while he was merely standing there, very still, on the mound.
We were disappointed, but what could we do? He’s only 12. He was frustrated and cold and wet. And I’m sure he could smell the hot dogs and the popcorn that all of us were eating. That had to add to the frustration. One can’t exactly eat a hot dog out on the pitcher’s mound.
So the coaches put the player in right field, where he made an immediate and miraculous recovery. And they called my son to the mound. My son doesn’t pitch. My son, I thought at the time, can’t pitch.
But there was no worry on his face, just a wide-eyed expression and an eager grin, despite the cold rain and the late hour. He warmed up for five or six pitches, the ball sailing over the catcher’s head at one point, veering widely outside at another. But his face was all smiles. From all the way up in the stands, I could see his teeth as he grinned, oblivious to the water dripping into his eyes, the wetness of the ball, the misery of his teammates.
He walked his first batter. But everyone cheered for him anyway. I think I cheered the loudest…because he was so obviously thrilled to be throwing that ball. There were two outs…achieved by the pitcher before his “injury.” A batter stepped up to the plate. My son wound up. And pitched.
Strike one! I squealed. I actually squealed.
By the third strike, I was better composed. I stood and yelled and cheered. Just like everyone else.
My son’s team totally lost that game. Their hearts weren’t in it. But I felt pride for my boy. And I felt envy and admiration too. He was able to smile when the rest of the team was faltering for their determination and the will to go on. He slapped the catcher on the back and said he was sorry that ball was so high. He’d try to do better. He knew he wasn’t a “born pitcher.” There were others on the team better qualified for the job. But the coach chose my son. Perhaps he knew that this was the boy to turn to when everyone else was in the gutter…this was the boy who would finish the game just for the sheer joy of playing.
I’m thinking of my son today as I try to find the will to write the next scene for my book. I’m trying to smile as I throw the pitches out…watching them veer wildly in all directions. I think of his face out on that mound and look for the joy in what I do. Who would have thought that inspiration could come from a baseball game on a rainy day?