Fitting It In

keeping a toe in

Summer is often a challenging time for me to get any writing done. Not only does it offer the usual distractions-days at the lake, various summer festivals, and family day trips to the zoo or a museum-but my daughter is out of school, and I have to find ways to keep her busy. Because of her various issues (not least of which is continuing bowel issues, something we’ve been working on very hard this last month with varying results) I’m not ready to send her to any camps yet. I’ve got my fingers crossed for next summer. Until then, I’ve got Lilly to entertain and keep busy, and this precludes any kind of serious writing projects.

Despite this, I’ve managed to keep my toe in well enough. I’ve cut down to one blog post per week, but I’ve maintained this throughout the summer without much of a problem. If nothing else gets done, the blog post must be written, period. It keeps me accountable. If I’m not reading the latest book on my Kindle during quiet moments at work on the cash register, I’m jotting scene notes on 3×5 note cards for the next section of Wolf Dream. I decided that what I had was not nearly long enough to be considered a “novel”, and that’s what I want to put out. Since I have ideas for parts 2 and 3, I thought I’d simply put them all together to get a proper fantasy novel of 500 pages or so. I’m not sure if this will actually work, but for now it turned out to be a good decision, since I needed something creative to get me excited about the story again. I was getting a little bored with tedious line edits of Part 1.

I’ve also decided to become a real writer and sacrifice something in pursuit of my dream. So, instead of staying up at night to watch The Walking Dead, I’ll be spending that hour writing. Sorry Rick, Daryl, et al. I’ll get back to you in September. But for the month of August, I’ll be doing some free-writing on a month’s worth of prompts sent to me by The Southeast Review. At that time of the day (9:00 pm), I’m a bit bleary-eyed and scatter-brained, so no “serious” writing projects. But putting pen to paper regularly every night will keep me from feeling weepy and resentful at the idea of “not having enough time” to write. If I’m willing to lose sleep over the zombie apocalypse, I can stay up to do something I claim I can’t live without.

So a busy, fun summer, but also some writing, too. I just needed a different strategy.

How do you juggle summer family obligations and writing?

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The Colors of Us

colors of us

My daughter loves this book, and so do I. It’s about a seven year old girl (hey mom, I’m seven, too! says Lilly) named Lena whose mother is an artist. Her mother (who is the color of french toast) tells her that if she mixes red, white, black and yellow paint together in the right amounts, it will make the right shade of brown to match her skin.

The right shade of brown? Lena asks. But mom, brown is brown.

Not so, says her mother. They take a walk around their neighborhood to look at all the different shades of people. There’s Lena’s best friend Sonia , who is the shade of creamy peanut butter. Her other friend, Jo-Jin, is the color of honey. Lucy is peachy and tan. Carlos and Rosita are butterscotch and cocoa. Aunt Kathy is tawny, like coconuts and coffee. Isabella is like the chocolate cupcakes they had for her recent birthday. And many more friends with beautiful, delicious sounding colors.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been pretty darn discouraged (appalled is probably the better word) lately about what’s happening in our country, as well as the wider world. It makes me exceedingly sad that I have to explain to my daughter why people hate and do terrible things to each other. And I really don’t have a good explanation; there is none. It all boils down to the color of a person’s skin. Or who they love, or what god they worship, or that they  hate broccoli. Okay, I made that last one up, but the other reasons are just as irrational and stupid.

I don’t want Lilly to know these things. I don’t want her innocence to be shattered. Right now, when she looks at other people, she just sees…well, people. In all their beautiful, delectable variety. Karen Katz has written a wonderful book that captures that simple truth.

Candy

dark chocolate

I have a confession to make: I’m a chocolate addict. Dark chocolate in particular, milk chocolate as a matter of course, and sugar in general.

On my About page, among other fascinating facts about myself, I claim to often be eating “vast quantities of dark chocolate.” It sounds like an exaggeration, doesn’t it? If you consider a 4.5 oz bar of Hershey’s Special Dark every day a vast quantity, then it’s not. Such a bar lists a serving size as 5 blocks, and there’s 3 servings in a bar. I often-though not always- end up eating a whole bar during the course of a day. That’s 540 calories, 36 grams of fat (21 saturated), and 57 grams of sugar.

There are days when I catch myself breaking off yet another piece of chocolate deliciousness (sometimes before noon!), popping the pieces into my mouth like Percosets, and I stop and wonder: how did I get here?

But upon reflection, I realize that this is a place in which I’ve always been. Sugar has been an ever-present ingredient of my life, beginning with the cereals I ate as a child. Breakfast was invariably a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Boo Berry, Lucky Charms, Sugar Smacks, Cookie Crisp, Captain Crunch, or any number of other sugary concoctions you could put in a box. This is not a judgment on my mother, who fed us this stuff without thought; back then, in the 70s, people weren’t so microscopic about what they put in their mouths. Sugar wasn’t quite the villain that it is now (unfortunately).

On top of this, there was the penny candy we often bought at the convenience store down the street. Squirrels, Swedish Fish, Pixie Stix (my sister had a strange habit of dusting a slice of bologna with this sweet powder), Charleston Chews, those candy dots on paper, Ring Pops. Popsicles, Fudgsicles, and Kool-Aid in the summer. And everyday, my dad would be commanded to stop at Cumbie’s on the way home from work to pick up milk, bread, and ice cream (there were two parents, five kids-including three teenage boys- and usually an extra person or two living in my house; we went through stuff fast). There was always a half gallon of ice cream in the freezer, year round. That was our bedtime treat. Sugar morning, noon and night.

These habits continued into my teen years when, theoretically, I could make more choices for myself. I was thoroughly addicted by now, and once I had my own money to spend, a lot of it was spent on candy. Soda wasn’t such a big problem from a sugar perspective, but I did have a pretty serious addiction to Diet Coke-that’s another story. As it is, the icky kid candy gave way to candy bars: Hershey’s, Chunky Bars, Snickers, Milky Way; my love affair with chocolate began. Packaged goodies like Suzie Q’s, Hostess Cupcakes, Oreos, and Table Talk Pies made their way into the mix, as well. Because of my youth, I could get away with this without becoming seriously obese; I also had to walk or bike anywhere I wanted to go. Mom and Dad were not the chauffeurs so many are now.  I was slim, but by no means skinny. The pear shape I’ve always battled was enhanced, right into my twenties.

By then I’d become more aware of how bad sugar was, on one’s weight, complexion, and health in general. But could I stop? Hardly. I was in the habit of sitting down late at night to watch NYPD Blue after a long night of waitressing, and polishing off a whole package of mini chocolate chip muffins. Or a box of Entenmman’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. Or a pint of ice cream. I stayed slim by madly running up and down the endless staircases in the restaurant I worked at, with heavy trays of food on my shoulder.

By my thirties, the party was over. I had a desk job where I sat on my butt for 7 or 8 hours a day. My husband and I often hiked, walked or biked, and that helped to keep the weight down. But internally? Havoc. I was tired a lot. Headaches. Yeast infections. Menstrual cycles that became more nightmarish with every year. You get the idea. I looked fine on the outside, but inside I was a mess.

I’ve since tried to cut out as much sugar as possible-except dark chocolate. It’s the one thing I cannot give up. I console myself with the research on the health benefits of dark chocolate, but I don’t think health professionals would recommend the amounts I consume. And the healthier chocolate is 70-80% cocoa (which I do like), while the Special Dark I prefer is a measly 55%.

Ah, well. I could be an alcoholic. Or addicted to pills, or nicotine, or sniffing glue. Too bad I’m not addicted to kale, but that would just be weird.

What’s your naughty addiction?

 

What does your daddy do?

My dad, nearing 81 years old, just retired last year from his job for health reasons. He was employed for close to 60 years for a casket company in Florence, Massachusetts.

For as long as I can remember, and before that, he worked in a shop that made caskets. He never talked about it–he never really talked to us kids about anything, really–so I never knew much about it. I never went there, never saw him at work. I just knew he got up every morning (no matter how much he drank the previous evening) and went to work, stayed there all day, and came home around suppertime. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade. I don’t know anything about what happened at this place, the people he worked with, the machinery he ran, the process of making caskets. Nothing. I just knew he worked at some place that made boxes for dead people.

I remember feeling embarrassed about this, ashamed. I’m not sure why; I guess death was a taboo subject, something we never talked about. I don’t remember ever asking my parents about death, in contrast to my 7 year old daughter, who often asks me about death and what happens and where do you go and what’s heaven like? So the fact that my dad did this, that he held some sort of position in the chain of death, was a bit mortifying.

In middle school, I think it was seventh grade, one of my teachers asked the class what their dads did for work (maybe moms, too, at this point-1983?-, but I clearly remember she was asking about dads) and I didn’t want to answer. I stalled, I hesitated, I was silent as I pretended to think, pretended I couldn’t remember. It didn’t occur to me to lie, or say I didn’t have a father. I was bound to the truth, but I was embarrassed at the truth. I hoped the teacher would pass over me, but no, she and the class waited patiently for me to answer, and it seemed like five long minutes, at least.

I finally confessed: he worked for a casket company.

A casket company? the teacher asked, eyes wide with disbelief or shock, as if she’d never heard of such a thing, as if caskets made themselves, as if he were part of some secret pariah class that did such dirty work it could never be spoken of. Her ridiculous reaction plunged me into such mortification; my cheeks burned with embarrassment, I wanted to sink down into the floor and disappear. Did the class titter and whisper? I don’t remember, but I remember feeling that what my father did for a living was dirty, shameful, how could he help make such repositories of death? It seems silly now, of course, but when you’re a kid something like that seems so out of the ordinary, and the last thing I wanted was to be linked with something not ordinary.

I was embarrassed about it then, but now I wonder how my dad felt, all those years, making with his hands something that he himself will someday rest in, indeed, that we all will some day rest in (even if it’s an urn with ashes; same principle). I wonder if he recognized a kind of irony in spending his life working and working and working at something, only to find himself inside it someday, like digging your own grave. I wonder if all those death boxes over the years are starting to haunt him.

 

coffin

 

I should be writing, but…

My husband has been away for a week camping (I’ve long since stopped sleeping on the ground), and you know what they say: when daddy is away, mommy gets the remote. So instead of dozing on the couch next to hubby during a Red Sox game (or working on that manuscript), I’m staying up late catching up on some shows and movies I’ve been wanting to watch. Here’s a list of the things I’ve been losing sleep over for the past week:

  • The Martian. I read the book  a few months ago, and thought it would make a much better movie. It did. I thoroughly enjoyed the film version with Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain. The viewer accepts that Mark Watney is super-smart and knows what he’s doing with the math and tech stuff, instead of having to read through it all in the book.
  • the martian image
  • The Danish Girl. I discovered Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, and knew he’d be equally brilliant in this film about a male Danish painter in 1920’s Copenhagen who felt he was born a woman in a man’s body. The story of Einar Wegener, with the help of his painter wife, Gerde, transforming into Lili Elbe (and undergoing one of the world’s first sex-change operations) is moving and amazing.
  • danish girl movie
  • The Walking Dead. I’ve watched the first five episodes of Season One, and despite some initial doubt, have been sucked in thoroughly. I can’t get my  husband interested, even though there’s gallons of blood, it’s gritty like Game of Thrones, and about survival like Lost (two of our favorites), so I’m on my own here. Quality television. I still laugh at the zombies, though.
  • walking dead show

I also spent one night cleaning up my daughter’s extreme diarrhea, but I’ll spare you the details on that one; better to think about WD’s slippery entrails. I’m not kidding.

What have you been watching? Fans of the above? Drop a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

The Snake and the Frog

snake eating frog
Image via Flickr

When I was ten years old, I knelt down in front of the maple tree in my grandmother’s front yard, and watched a snake eat a frog. It was a garter snake, its jaws unhinged to accommodate the small brown frog it was in the process of swallowing whole. The frog’s hind legs were in the snake’s mouth, and his upper body protruded outward, his eyes staring blankly forward, unable to escape.

I remember the scene as frozen in time; the two creatures seemed paralyzed, unmoving, unblinking, as the snake held the frog clamped in its jaws, the slow process of ingestion unfolding before my fascinated eyes.

Inside the house, my mother cared for my grandmother, bedridden in the middle stages of ALS. Soon she would end up in the nursing home, where she would die at the age of 68. But right now, she insisted on being at home, and my mother and aunt would go over several times a week to clean her house, help her bathe and eat, cook her food.

My sister and I would play in the unused upper rooms of the house, what we called “the attic”, and explore all the boxes and bags stored there, the old knick-knacks and books and Christmas decorations, the clothing and furniture and photo albums. Treasures. Whenever I catch the smell of mothballs, I think of these rooms bursting with my grandmother’s things, the baggage of a life.

If we weren’t upstairs we were outside, cavorting around the back yard, the cows on the hill in the distance, playing hide and seek or other games we made up. We went upstairs or outside, or across the street at the “park”, a town common, really, with a stream that burbled through it, where we’d “fish” with a stick and a string. Out of our mother’s hair, who tended to grandma because she was sick, who couldn’t walk anymore, who couldn’t speak very well anymore, whose blue bedroom, dark with pulled shades, held the scent of illness and decay.

I was glad to be upstairs or outside. I didn’t like seeing my grandmother like this, weak, dependent, sad. I remember an elegant woman who wore pantsuits and pearl earrings, who got her license at age 60 and bombed around in her little brown Nova, who slipped Kit Kats into our hands for being good girls. I don’t remember a lot, but my mother’s stories suggest a passionate, headstrong woman who’d had a hard life, three husbands and eight children, a woman who nearly hit my drunken grandfather over the head with a cast iron skillet (my mother stopped her)-in short, a woman with a lot of fight in her.

Until one day, a leg that didn’t work right. A hand that dropped things. A slurred word here and there. A snake had slithered in and engulfed her, had begun to paralyze her. It didn’t affect her sharp mind; it left that intact to witness the slow digestion of the body.

I never saw the snake complete its meal. I have memories of visiting grandma at the nursing home, where my mother and aunt continued to care for her, going nearly every day to comb her hair, shave her legs, change her clothes, allowing her whatever dignity that remained to her. When she died, I didn’t go to her funeral. My mother wanted to spare us that, and I’m glad. I like to remember her the way she was, spirited and strong, before the snake slipped in.