Now you've got the chance
You might as well just dance
Go skies and thrones and wings
And poetry and things.
--Neil Halstead

Friday, September 18, 2020

Fun with Mail: PoPo 2020

 It's September, which means that August Poetry Postcard Festival (PoPo) is officially over. Of course, PoPo is never truly over, because the poetry friends you've made in years past who weren't in your group can always pop into your mailbox with a bonus card, but I think I'm ready to do this year's wrap-up. Registration is already open for 2021; if you've ever wanted a mailbox full of cool poetry and fun postcards, do yourself a favor and sign up.

Behold, this year's haul:

That's a lovely bunch of postcards, some purchased, some made. There are some lovely poems on the back, too, but per the community rules, I can't share those. I can share some of my poems, though.

My process this year was a little different than usual. For one thing, I took the plunge and created some of my own postcards. I am no artist, but I had fun pretending.

First, I experimented with mandalas using gel pens and markers. Here are the six of those:

Next, I branched out into collage, which is much harder than I thought it would be. For the text, I have a battered copy of Great Expectations that I'd bought at Half Price Books some years ago for craft projects. The rest is a combination of paints, scrapbook paper, and stickers.

Finally, I got really brave. I love watching Facebook art videos, especially Deepak's Art. He does pastels, beautiful pastels. I have never touched a pastel. And, yet, I really wanted to try. The results were...slightly unembarrassing. But I had fun. 

As I said, slightly unembarrassing. The bird looks like it should have broken the branch long ago and plunged an enormous crater into the ground. The tree looks like it is surviving a plague of acid fish rain through self-immolation. The poor butterfly weeds are watching some birds fly into a nuclear explosion. But, it was fun, and I apologize to all the recipients of my artistic endeavors. My mother, of course, says it's all "folk art" and I should be proud of them. This is why children never believe their mothers. 

As to my poetry process, I took a different tack this year. Usually, I let the postcard inspire me. This year, I was mentally drained from the many, many hours of overtime I've had to put in at work and the stress of numerous personal and family challenges. Frankly, I was afraid I didn't have it in me to write a poem. I hadn't done a bit of creative writing since January. 

So I decided to give myself a different challenge. Every day, I drew a tarot card, and wrote from that, which freed me from the postcard imagery. There were some definite themes in my tarot card draws, which led to some repetitive imagery, but overall, it was easier to write this way, this year. 

Some of my favorites:

August 4, 2020--Two of Cups

Surfacing into the sunlight,

the world is brighter,

just a quick breath,

     a call, a message,

           a promise,

that one day,

      maybe soon,

these closed worlds

we occupy will open,

spiral outward,

     intersect, merge.

August 5, 2020--Nine of Cups

Returning home—the place—

can be the journey

of minutes or years—

a walk up the drive,

ten years of wandering.


And then you begin again

because returning home

—to yourself—

is the true test,

    to know what lies

         at the center

                and welcome it home.

August 16, 2020--Five of Swords

All the gilded cathedrals

we build, the heavy stones

and chiseled saints,

imbued with iconography,

will, someday, crumble,

or be dismantled,

    stone by stone,

holy relics uncovered,

   scattered, exposed

to the same bright sky

       that was always there. 

August 30, 2020--Four of Wands

Turn on the porch light,

   the candlelight,

        the fire light,

or step outside in damp grass

and walk through the flicker

of fireflies, trusting

the path we’re on

   leads somewhere good. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Breathing Fire

So I saw a meme on Facebook that posed the interesting philosophical problem: "Name one thing in life that could be improved with dragons."

That seemed rather limiting, because the modern world contains many situations where a dragon could be helpful. Particularly if it was one of the telepathic, teleporting, telekinetic dragons in Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels, so that I could direct it to do things without anyone else knowing what was going on. 

Dragon groupie (and collector of miniature animals). 
If you were a dragon groupie, you'd know that there is a big 
debate about whether to organize your books in order of 
publication or in chronological order of the complex, 
multi-generational history of the imaginary planet 
of Pern. I resolved this debate by shelving randomly.

Workplace uses of the dragon would be pretty limited these days for your average office job. The morning commute is not a problem at the moment. Ending meetings early by causing fire drills is not as effective on Zoom/Teams/Skype. Even expediting document approvals is much harder in a digital world. ("So you need another week to look at that document, do you? How about now? Sigh.  <waits no longer than it takes to cough three times for dragon to teleport> Now?") 

Of course, it's hard to give your dragon precise coordinates to teleport when you only ever see people's living rooms/fake living room backgrounds. So we might have to wait on the professional applications of dragons until after the pandemic. 

Everyone on Teams sees my bedroom, because Bob 
only lets me work there. If I try to sit at a desk LIKE 
A NORMAL PERSON, he breaks things and bites.
 If I kick him out, he claws at the door. If I work from
 bed, he curls up beside (and, occasionally, on top of)
 me and sleeps.

Travel is an obvious win. No TSA screening, no worries about recycled air, crying babies, or passengers who refuse to mask up. And the carbon footprint is so low you'll get a personal congratulatory (digital) postcard from Greta Thunberg. Luggage space is somewhat limited, but you're arriving on a dragon. With the money you save, you can just buy a new wardrobe when you arrive. Bonus points if your dragon burns through the roof of Chanel.

A dragon can definitely help you maintain social distancing. One curl of smoke and even the largest and most unruly of crowds will give you 6 feet of separation, give or take a hundred yards.

Also, I'm not sure there have been studies, but dragon fire is probably a pretty potent disinfectant. It may burn down whatever you're trying to disinfect, but there won't be any viruses left when she's through. Just rebuild with sanitary (and fireproof) materials.

Cooking-wise, your dragon can help with smores night, campouts, and fondue. He can thaw and BBQ simultaneously, although you'll want to wrap those ribs in a lot of foil to prevent charring. Cleanup is also a breeze; just keep a water hose handy. 

If you're an extrovert, your dragon is an excellent conversation starter. If you're an introvert, you're dragon is an excellent conversation ender. Everyone wins!

And of course, we haven't even touched on the telekinesis. Tree removal alone could be a profitable side hustle in my neighborhood. And the trash cans would always be put out and pulled back on time.

So many possibilities. Unfortunately, Bob and Daisy aren't nearly as useful as pets. They make messes, refuse to social distance, and sit on my suitcase to keep me from going anywhere. They disappear when it's time to cook or clean (but will absolutely try to eat my food). 

Lucky for them, they're cute.
And pettable. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Time, It Moves So Weird


It's been a long decade. Or year. Whatever. 
Bob, however, is excellent at time. 
Specifically, breakfast time 
and dinner time.

Part of what makes 2020 so long is, of course, COVID-time, where each day lasts approximately 2 minutes or 3.5 weeks, depending on the phase of the moon and/or whatever game mode the hypersentient beings who are playing this video game called Earth are using (currently: combat mode).

Part of it is that due to the Nature of My Job, I have actually worked an entire extra month (in overtime) since March. We'll call it Julaugbrilay. I'm now working on another one, which will be Septovberary. (If I'm still earning overtime after Septovberary, we'll just call the next overtime month "Despair.")

Part of it is that I inherently suck at time anyway. Despite the fact that all I have to do to attend meetings is click on a button, I still manage to be late to them sometimes because my brain is absolutely convinced that I need to arrive EXACTLY ON TIME, which means that at 9:59, I have an entire minute to do things, like respond to email, go to the bathroom, and get a glass of water. Shockingly, this never works out. 

Since I have been doing a lot of writing professionally, I have not been writing creatively. This is actually the first non-work-related bit of writing I've done since February. Mostly, by the time I'm done working, all I want to do is silly tablet games, with a side of social media. 

Things I have NOT done (or not done much) this year:
  1. Read things not related to work.
  2. Write things not related to work.
  3. Finish the meditation class I started in February.
  4. Tarot, except for one special request.
  5. Knit.
  6. Finish editing my book of short stories.
  7. Complete most of the 4,932 items on my mother's to-do list.
  8. Master the alto recorder, or as Eleanor refers to it, the toodle-oo. 
  9. Baked bread. I think I'm down to every other month or so.
So what I have I done with my pandemic, besides work and silliness?
Oddly soothing it is. And
the tiny postcard size 
is great because adult 
coloring book pages 
outlast my attention span.
  1. Mastered the art of cooking roast. For years, I was hampered by the ridiculous necessity of leaving the house to go to work. I had to stick a roast in a crock pot and leave it to convert into shoe leather 10 hours later. But now, I can take a 10 minute break to sear the roast at exactly 2:30 and leave it to simmer the rest of the afternoon. We've been eating a lot of roast.
  2. Finally made my own postcards. As I mention every year, I participate in the August Poetry Postcard Festival. I bought some postcard blanks on Amazon last year, in case I felt brave enough to attempt art. It finally occurred to me that, while I am fairly hopeless at drawing things, I have always been a first-class doodler. It helps me focus in meetings, while simultaneously feeding my colored pen addiction. 

  3. Discovered the local farmer's market. It's one outing we can make while socially distancing and picking up pretty produce. We've become addicted to Chef Flaco's salsas and quesos (motto: put some Flaco on your taco, which does make you question the ingredient list), and Murphy's Mallows makes the best homemade smores. This is also where I get my roasts. The girls love to go with me, because of the fresh squeezed strawberry lemonade. (Betty's job is to stop me from buying too much produce. Sometimes she succeeds.)
  4. Watched a popular TV show. That's right. I haven't watched an entire TV show in eight years. I haven't been to the movies in five. But I sat down with Eleanor and watched "The Tiger King" in its entirety, which I believe the rest of the world calls "binge-watching." It
    Sort of the thread equivalent of doodling,
    actually. No plan, no vision...just, "Hey, look!
    a blank space! Let's put something there!"
    was a dumpster fire on a train wrecking into a shark tank. Highly recommended. And mercifully brief, because I just don't have it in me to sustain TV watching beyond about 8 consecutive episodes. 
  5. Did some embroidery. Betty wanted to learn, so I showed her a few stitches. Really, she only wanted to learn backstitching so she could sew encouraging words for her friends, but I got carried away and now I have a thing that I absolutely have no idea what to do with. I guess it could be a very small pillow? A large coaster? IDK. But it was fun.
  6. Engaged in slow, methodical destruction of an electronic device. Of the many jobs of a modern parent (Cook, Chauffeur, Personal Secretary, Entertainer, Supervisor, Referee), my least favorite has always been Household IT. But when my tablet, which had long outlived its design parameters, abruptly died for no good reason, I first tried to be responsible by going through an entire Google of troubleshooting. So what do you do when nothing works, but your device died before you could wipe your personal info from it? You spend an entire evening attacking it methodically during the ads between anagram games with a small screwdriver, that's what. I now have teeny tiny tablet pieces in the trash and a small collection of magnets. 
Not bad for six months, I guess. But COVID is here to stay, at least for a little while, and that means before we know it, we'll be almost through with Septovberary and heading into Despair, and I only have one more dead electronic device to dismember and Betty won't let me buy more than two shopping bags full of produce. Maybe it's time to revisit the whole writing for fun thing. Or at least bake a loaf of bread. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

One for the Books

Between work and kids and various biennial political events and writing and such, you might be surprised to hear that I found time to read in 2019. For sure, many busy people read via the miracle of audiobooks. I've heard people extol the virtues of whiling away rush hour, kids' piano lessons, and road trips by being read to. Every time I buy a book, Amazon offers to read it to me. Even the kids' school libraries have audio books.

This does not work for me.

"Look, doc, I don't care if  you actually
recommend our toothpaste. We already
got 4 dentists to recommend it. We need
someone to not recommend it so it can
be 4 out of 5. Otherwise, it sounds fake!"
Humorist Dave Barry once said that everybody thinks they are an above-average driver. I think I am definitely an above-average driver--if you pick the sample extremely carefully, the way toothpaste companies pick dentists who recommend their toothpaste.

I've only been in a couple of wrecks, but that is a result of me over-compensating by being overly cautious. I can definitely enjoy a good audio book in the car, as long as someone else is driving. I tried using them on our first family road trips, and I would get absorbed in the story and suddenly, the chapter would end and I'd have no idea what state we were in. So it is either music or silence for me on the road, and my reading happens via physical books (I know, so quaint) or on my Kindle, which does limit the number of books I can get through in a year.

Nevertheless, according to my Amazon order history, in 2019 I bought the following books:
  • The Realm Below: The Rise of Tanipestis, by Susan Rooke. I was so excited to be asked to review this book. Susan has the most vivid, wicked imagination and this is no ordinary supernatural tale. 
  • Educated, by Tara Westover: Good enough that I recommended it to my mother, who had (of course; she lives on the library website) already heard of it and put it on her ebook request list. We both loved this autobiography of a young woman raised in a prepper compound who finds her way out into the wide world and acquires an Oxford education. Families are weird.
  • Doing it Over, Staying for Good, and Making it Right, by Catherine Bybee: A fun series of sassy chick lit novels set in the Pacific Northwest. Every once in a while, I get in the mood, read a few of these types of books, and then move on. 
  • Shrill, by Lindy West: I really enjoyed this book of essays. She has a strong voice and is a strong advocate for women and for basically not being a jerk to people. She's also funny and smart as hell. 
  • Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier: Eleanor chose this for her book club in English. For their book club report, they had to write, act in, film, and produce a movie trailer. Eleanor played the crazy person. If you've read it, you know who that is. I don't.
  • A River in Darkness, by Masaji Ishikawa: I saw this one on Amazon and was intrigued. It's an autobiographical account of a Japanese-born man whose mother and step-father emigrated to North Korea, the hardships he experienced (Japanese immigrants were despised), and his ultimate escape and return to Japan. You will never look at weeds the same way again.
  • The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee: Another autobiography of a North Korean defector. She came from a different social class, so it offered a much different perspective.
  • AP World History Prep Plus: It is entirely possible Eleanor actually opened this once or twice, but I didn't have the heart to ask.
  • Finis, by Angelique Jamail. Angelique was our guest at the Austin Poetry Society meeting in March. This novella is an imaginative fantasy novel about a world in which people manifest animal traits. 
  • Holes by Louis Sachar: Both Bruce and Eleanor read this book in 5th grade, but this is the first time the school asked me to buy it. Unfortunately, there was not enough supernaturalness, female characters or K-pop to hold Betty's interest.
  • Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare): This is wrong, dammit. You are SUPPOSED to fear Shakespeare. Not the witches, the Elizabethan English. This is what we scared teenagers with before the real world made Lady Macbeth cute. (For Eleanor's English class.)
  • Loving Day, by Mat Johnson: I read Pym last year and loved it...Johnson has a unique vision and some of the most original characters in fiction. The narrator is a biracial man who was raised black by his black mom but unfortunately takes 100% after his lily white Irish dad in looks and has a Jewish daughter who identifies as black. It's a funny and profound look at how we identify ourselves and others. 
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini: Beautifully, vividly written and just plain brutal to read. By about half way through, I was plowing through it determined to finish, telling Hosseini, "YOU OWE ME A HAPPY ENDING, DAMMIT!" If abandoning your goat to return to the war-torn city where your family was blown up so you can rebuild an orphanage qualifies as a happy ending, then maybe, I guess? 
  • Suzuki Music School: Viola Books 4-5: As it turns out, Bruce hates the viola and considers these books horrible trash books for a horrible trash instrument that only nerds like his sister who are to be pitied would ever want to play. Books are in pristine, never opened condition.
  • Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward: Despite the title sounding like a horror novel, Eleanor says it was a really interesting memoir of a young woman's harrowing childhood in Louisiana, so maybe a horror memoir? I haven't read it.
  • Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah: When Jon Stewart left the Daily Show, I was like, "NO! No one will ever replace him! I can't even watch this non-Jon-ness!" But then Noah grew on me and I love how the show has evolved. His account of his youth in South Africa was both funny and interesting.
  • Sweet Pipes Recorder Method, Volumes 1-2: I decided this summer to learn to play the Cheater's Clari-Flute. The fun and feel of the clarinet and the range of the flute, without the hassle of bleeding gums, finger callouses, or reeds, FTW! As a bonus, the learning songs make the house sound like a year-round Ren Faire...anyone want a turkey leg?
  • The Proactive Professional, by Chrissy Scivicque: Staff recommended this as something I might want to give to staff, so I read it, and I did. It has not, in any way, made me more proactive. Or professional. 
  • Lesson Book 1: Piano Adventures, by Nancy Faber: Oh, what an adventure it was! The chords, the suspense of wondering if the left and right hands would play the same song... (Bruce needed a second copy for my house.)
  • Tipton Poetry Journal, #41: The fun thing about poetry journals is that it's a lot like getting your high school immediately look at your own entry first to make sure you don't look like a goober with a typo or something, and then you go straight to the table of contents and see who all you know and read their stuff so you can see what they've been up to.
  • Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson: My mother, who is a voracious reader, read this true account of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 when it came out in the 90's, but I hadn't heard of it until one of our staff recommended it to me. It was amazing to me how little government agency politics have changed in the last 120 years. It was also a gripping read; I read the part about the actual landfall of the hurricane twice, just to savor the writing and the vicarious experience of a major hurricane making landfall.
  • First Book of Practical Studies for the Tuba, by Nilo Hovey: Is the tuba ever, truly, practical? (Purchased for Betty, of course)
  • The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan: One of my poet friends posted about this British romance novel on Goodreads so I gave it a try. It's a romance novel, so plausibility and plot are not going to be strong points, but I dug the whole Scottish highlands setting. Kilts!
  • In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote: Because high school these days is so hard core that the kids read true crime accounts of vicious murders in English class. (Eleanor enjoyed it.)
  • One Hundred Recorder Pieces, Volume 1, by David Stilp: What happens when you get tired of playing Renaissance Faire classics like "The Sailor Likes His Bottle-o!" and "Holla-hi, Holla-ho" but aren't quite sure your pets' eardrums are ready to learn the notes above high E? You get a nice book of recorder pieces to play around with, that's what.
  • Who am I? Who are We?, by Christa Pandey. I love reading books by people I know and is a good way to really understand someone you already know in a deeper way. In this book of poems, Christa grapples with that uneasy question of what we as individuals and communities have become in these polarizing times.
  • The K-Pop Dictionary: 500 Essential Korean Slang Words and Phrases Every K-Pop Fan Must Know, by Woosung Kang: A (pop)cultural tour-de-force, providing glimpses into the slang of K-pop and K-drama stars, so that Korea-boos like my daughter Betty (whose Christmas present this was) can work tragically mispronounced Korean phrases into middle school conversation. (Apologies in advance, native Korean speakers.)
  • Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems, by Kevin Kwan: Eleanor gave me the first book in paperback format for Christmas. It was awesome fun, as I'd heard it would be. Scheming relatives, preposterous wealth, and an author who doesn't take his characters too seriously--all resulted in me reading a book a day. Also, I'm a sucker for humorous footnotes. 
  • The Beautiful Ones by Prince: Bruce (a Prince fan) gave me this biography/autobiography/ collection of random found things for Christmas. It is not, in any sense, a normal biography, which is entirely appropriate. It included copies of song lyrics scrawled on the backs of envelopes, annotated photo albums, and Prince's handwritten notes for his autobiography. It was almost like rummaging through his nightstand. 
  • Solos for Young Violists, Volume 4, by Barbara Barber: A gripping page turner, full of bold dissonance and stratospheric, demon-dog summoning flights. Not that I am the one reading it.
So, statistically, I guess I bought a whole bunch of books but only actually read 21 books...24 if you include the recorder books. Of those, half were written by persons of color and 55% were written by women. 52% were fiction, 38% were non-fiction/biography/autobiography, and two were poetry. Only 30% of the authors were not American-born.

Bob says that the worst book of 2019 was absolutely, without doubt, The First Book of Practical Studies for the Tuba. He does not recommend.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Teens

Perhaps they're like a bronco ride: lots of ups and downs, brief moments of airborne ecstasy followed by planting face down in the dirt and dodging skull shattering kicks. Perhaps they're like a kaleidoscope: the more you try to hold still and stop time, the faster the change happens and the patterns shift, beautiful but utterly impermanent. Or maybe they're like one of those sped up art videos: it looks like random paint splashes, odd lines and lumps, and you're waiting and waiting for it all to come together, and it's so satisfying when it does. 

No, not these teens.
Although that paragraph describes their experience with junior high/high school pretty well, too.
These teens: 2010-2019.

My experience with the last 10 years has been a little bit of "all of the above." Let's take a quick stroll through the decade, shall we?

Molly in 2010: high energy, high maintenance, too-smart-for-anybody's good, prissy, sassy labradoodle we adopted around this time. In her early years, she was fond of trying to eat the contents of Bruce's diaper.
2010: At the beginning of the decade, we had just moved back to Austin. I took a new job definitely outside of my comfort zone. I hadn't written more than half a dozen poems in the preceding decade and had never published any of them. The kids were toddlers.

Lesson learned: I hate sitting in my cubicle alone writing things on the computer all day. 

Betty and Bruce decorate the tree in 2011. We had to decorate trees at work the year before and we went with a "recycled" theme and I folded 200 origami cranes out of colorful sticky notes. Once you've folded 200 cranes, you do NOT just throw them away. Some became mobiles. Some found their way into my personal Christmas ornament stash. 
2011: Ugh. Can we fast forward? No? Sigh. The sitting in the cube alone all day was making me nuts. The ex and I separated. I remember a colleague telling me how surprised she was to hear that, as she had been a barely functional basket case during her divorce, and I was holding it together so well. Inwardly, I laugh-cried at that, because I was absolutely a barely functional basket case. To the point where, any time I come across someone I met during the 2011-2012 time period, my first reaction is to want to apologize profusely and promise them I got better. Oh, and 2011 was when I got the original knee injury that led to me being almost unable to walk, that led to the gait issues, that led to the foot problem, that led to the 2019 hospital visit. Thanks, 2011. 

Lessons learned: Ignoring pain is a bad idea. There is a fine line between being authentic and over-sharing. (Actually it may not be that fine of a line.)

Pericles in 2012. He was my best buddy. He slept in the crook of my arm every night and kept me company in his quiet way.
2012: See 2011. The blessings of the 2011-2012 period were good friends who listened to my drama  and frequently treated me to meals and drinks to break up the monotony of ramen and my $10-a-day budget. I had started attending the Austin Poetry Society critique group in 2011, and finally became a real member in 2012. A poem about Pericles was one of my first wins and first published poems. Another of my poems was illustrated and placed on an Austin bus. I began writing short stories. I switched jobs to try my hand at project management.

Lessons learned: Poetry people are the best people. Good friends can get you through anything. Being authentic means putting your words and your work out there and taking risks. 

Bruce and I, Bandera Volcano in New Mexico. If you look closely, you can see I'm trying to hide my cane. By this point, my knee was so bad I had to heave myself to a standing position and could barely walk. Because I am stubborn, this did not stop me from walking up this volcano in 108 degree heat. 
2013: The new job was probably one of the highlights of my professional career, in the sense that it really played to my strengths in a very unique way. I succeeded not so much with crackerjack organizational skills (I don't have those) but through using my intuitive skills to anticipate needs, read people and situations, and sense what was important. My buddy Pericles crossed the rainbow bridge at the ripe old age of 18, and, a few months later, I adopted Daisy. On the plus side, my mother took us to New Mexico on the first of many family vacations. Another plus was winning the Stand Up for Safe Families haiku contest and reading my poem and sharing my story as a survivor of child abuse to an audience of hundreds on Lady Bird Lake.

Lessons learned: I hate full-time project management with undying passion, even more than sitting alone in a cubicle writing things. Just because you can  do something, doesn't mean it will make you happy. I consistently underestimate the amount of water to bring on a hike.

Bruce and I on the top of Crystal Mountain in Arkansas. Bruce stuck to my side the entire hike, worried about me, as I stubbornly heaved myself up the mountain with my walking sticks. There is a theme emerging...a theme that would one day contribute to the college education fund of my podiatrist.

2014: Another new job. This one, it turns out, I actually enjoyed AND did well at, simultaneously. Who knew? More poems published. I won the Austin Poetry Society top contest for the first time. My first baby moved on to junior high. Thanks to the excruciatingly painful miracle of Airrosti, I was slowly regaining my ability to walk with something approaching normality. I got tired of my own drama and made the conscious decision to stop thinking and talking about drama.

Lesson learned: Gratitude--seriously, after the physical problems of 2011-2013, I would have these moments of "Wow--I just got out of the car without pain...I couldn't do that last year. What a blessing!" Or, "Hey! I just stood up! Like normal people do! How awesome!" I still have those moments, actually. 

Robert Pinsky & me signing autographs at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 2015. He had judged my poem as a semi-finalist in the artlines2 contest and all of the finalists & semi-finalists were lined up to sign the anthology. Okay, most people asked for my autograph while waiting to talk to Pinsky...I had the benefit of great seating. They had forgotten to print a name tent for me and so the only empty spot was at the end of the table, next to him. It was an amazing experience to hear so many people telling him which of his poems they loved and what his words meant to them. 
2015: More poetry. More success at work. I learned to loom knit and made 42 practice coasters for people at work (sorry--I hope the lumps don't make your coffee spill) and then hats and scarves for the kids, some of which may still exist in a parallel dimension somewhere. I volunteered with the Poetry Caravan and was recognized with the group at the Austin City Hall. After our Colorado vacation, we adopted Bob Cat.

Lesson learned: Writing is about connection, a way for people who may never meet to know each other deeply. Some of the most rewarding readings I did were for the Poetry Caravan when I did not read any of my own work, but shared poems by authors I loved so that me and the audience were having a conversation through poetry.

Betty, Eleanor & Bruce enjoy Fancy Coffee while using our shipboard credit on our Alaskan cruise. The first several days we were frugal, and then on the next-to-last day, I realized we had $200 in credit and it was lattes for everyone!
2016: My mother bought a house in Round Rock and we moved in together. I started working with Kim, a gifted masseuse and wise woman whose insights have been such an enormous blessing in my life. I finally got a poem accepted in the Texas Poetry Calendar and another poem published in the San Antonio newspaper. And, late in the year, Betty talked me into telling her the story that would become "The Golden Feather"--the novel I never thought I could write.

Lessons learned: Stay open to intuition and wonder. I actually CAN write a novel. 

Me & Eleanor before 8th grade 'prom.' Yep, my eldest child started high school in 2017.
2017: I spent the year preparing for organizational changes at work and revising (and re-revising and re-re-revising) "The Golden Feather." Slowly, it became a Real Book devoid of silly typos, characters whose names changed spelling constantly, and gaping plot holes. It acquired illustrations and a fabulous, truly unique cover (thanks, Steve Jackson!). I was especially proud of the two poems included in the Dos Gatos publication "Weaving the Terrain." As I became happier and more confident, I was writing not just emo/depressing poems but more outward looking poems. I joined the Austin Poetry Society board and began editing the anthology.

Lessons learned: Your poetry is a lot more interesting when you lose the angst.

Betty opens the box containing the proof copy of "The Golden Feather" in 2018.
2018: Talk about roller coasters! I mentioned "organizational changes" at the 5-year period of 2014-2019, I had 10 different supervisors, 5 offices and 5 phone numbers. My department lost 3 functions and gained a new one. I promise you, change fatigue is real. Then, mid-year, the book finally came out. Hurray! While I was still planning how to celebrate, we went to Maine on vacation. I had been concerned about the swelling and pain in my foot, but instinctively knew that if I went to the doctor, the vacation would be cancelled. So, we went on walks, climbed stairs (endless stairs), wandered around Quebec City on foot, and I refused to give up or even acknowledge pain. Consequently, the second half of 2018 was spent in a cast or boot. (If you've ever wanted to up your stress game, try interviewing for a job in a cast, on a knee cart, after you've chipped your front tooth flipping said knee scooter on a sidewalk crack, so that you roll in the room scraped up and looking like you've been in a bar fight. I was like, "They are NEVER going to hire me." But they did.) As soon as I got out of the boot, I celebrated by accompanying Eleanor to Chicago with the orchestra and hiking all over Chicago on what turned out to be a poorly made custom orthotic, which led to...

Lessons learned: Ignoring pain is a bad idea (see 2011). Good friends (and family) can get you through anything (see 2012). On the other side of change fatigue lies resilience.

Betty & I at her 5th grade graduation in 2019. Yep, ALL of my babies are out of elementary school. 
2019: exciting stay at the local hospital for a bone infection resulting in the amputation of the tip of my toe. I self-published my first collection of poetry that Eleanor illustrated. I finally put together a poetry workshop I'd been thinking about for a couple of years and it was a success...through word-of-mouth, I was invited to deliver it at three different festivals in 2019-2020. I finished off the year having a blast talking to people and selling books with Eleanor at the Heights Artisan Market in Houston.  

Lessons learned: I can design and put together a book by myself. I have a bigger, more supportive network than I thought. It's okay to ask for help when I need it. Cute shoes are overrated. Gratitude (see 2014).

So--yes. Ups and downs, a veritable tornado of change (changenado?), and tremendous growth and transformation--personally, professionally and as a writer. These were the Turbulent Teens, for sure. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Unexpected Freedoms

Have you ever shared a moment where somebody said something that was absolutely freeing? 

Okay, maybe not quite THAT freeing. 

My most recent such moment was riding down the elevator with a coworker. She looked at me, absolutely glowing, and whispered, "We're leaving this place!" And we both happy sighed, because it had been a long day week month quarter.

My biggest moment of freedom happened in a bar in Dallas three years ago. It should go without saying that I was fully clothed and mostly sober. I am not a big drinker. When Mother and I moved in together four years ago, we each put a mostly full bottle of liquor in the fridge. Lord knows how either of us came to buy our individual bottles, but they have remained untouched for four years. Our official position is that they exist to help maintain proper freezer temperatures in case of a power outage. 
The look I got the last time my kids saw me drink a glass of wine. You'd've thought they'd caught me on a three-day crack bender while on the run from a liquor store robbery with a stolen zebra.
(Photo: Eleanor, 2003)

Betty, enjoying her book last year.
Totally worth it.
Anyway, I was at a bar in Dallas, explaining to a couple of people why I was planning to self-publish my novel instead of spending the next 10 years shopping for agents and book deals. The gist of my argument:
  1. The novel was written for Betty, and I wanted her to see her book in print while she was still young enough to enjoy it.
  2. I have neither the time nor the interest in sending out a bazillion query letters and becoming a professional marketer for myself. 
  3. I have exceptional writing (grammar, spelling, proofreading) and editorial skills, and I enjoy editing, so I am confident in the quality of my work.

Self-publishing has its downsides, for sure. If you don't invest in outside editing and copyediting, the quality can be amateurish. If you want extras like illustrations and cool cover design, you pay for it. 

Anyway, I gave my reasons, and was feeling a little defensive of my choice, questioning whether everyone I met would question it, too. Then, one of my companions then said the most wonderful, liberating thing: "So, really, it's like a hobby. I spend the same amount of time and money on my guitars. You spend it on making books. That's cool."

That one statement allowed me to completely reframe my writing life. Since then, I've really embraced my hobbyist status. I can pay for help--or DIY it. If I want to pay my daughter to illustrate my poetry book, I can. If I want to write humorous bios or odd disclaimers or put in 256 footnotes or hide dinosaurs on prime numbered pages, I can. Just like if I want to knit a purple and orange hat, it's my yarn and my loom. I have creative control. 

The liberating part of that is that, while I'm excited and grateful for every reader, the purpose of a hobby is not to make money. The money a hobbyist gets is frankly a bonus. You do the hobby because it brings you joy. 

My dad used to have this plaque on his boat. He was a true sailing hobbyist.
It's not a lazy approach, by any means. Any hobbyist can spend hours (and lots of money) absorbed in perfecting their passion. But that time and money fills you up, not drains you. I have paid both of my illustrators more money than I will probably ever make in royalties on either book. And that's fine with me. I love the illustrations and what they add to the words on the page, and I love having the creative freedom to put illustrations in my books...a choice I almost certainly wouldn't have with a traditional publisher. 

Sticking to the hobbyist role also enables me to firmly, joyfully refuse to participate in intrusive marketing. I do not tweet, although that is somewhat debatable since I took up playing the recorder. I announce my books on Facebook and Instagram...once. And then I am done, unless there's something about them or the writing of them that I want to explore here. 

The downside of being a hobbyist is (a) turning my back on the .0000000001% chance I could be the next Pulitzer-winning indie publishing success story, and (b) seeing the Kindle Direct Publishing metrics. My bar graphs look less like a soaring kite than the EKG of Dr. Frankenstein trying to shoot electricity into a bunch of dead body parts. 

YES! Dear God! It's ALIIIII....nope...WAIT!...nope....was that a tremor?...still nope.
Dammit, back to the graveyard.

On the whole, though, I enjoy being a writing hobbyist, perfecting my craft exactly the way I want. A sense of freedom came from that moment of conversation where I let go of second guessing and accepted my decision as being right for me...a sense of freedom that lasted a LOT longer than the freedom of getting off the elevator at work.
Also longer than the freedom of a fun-filled escape with these weirdos.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Box Life

I recently delivered my first-born child unto choir camp. All-State Choir Camp, for the uninitiated, seems to follow the same format, regardless of which university it's at:
Bruce said the worst part about
camp (besides homesickness)
was standing up for 45 minutes
during viola choir I was like,
"DUDE! I beg you, do NOT 
say that in front of Eleanor.
She may end you."
  1. Wake up early.
  2. Stand up and sing for 12 hours.
  3. Go to bed.
  4. Repeat for 3 days.
  5. Go home and sleep for a week.
I mean, they do let them sit down to eat, but that's pretty much it. (They claim it has to do with breath support, but, as a seasoned parent, I suspect it also has to do with wearing them out so they're easier to supervise.) In addition to standing, they get to do some hiking around campus in the middle of a Texas summer. Plus, there's a fun dance, where the more energetic and social kids actually dance, but where my introverted alto (I realize that may be redundant) made a beeline for Starbucks and watched YouTube, declaring it "best evening EVER." 

Choir camp registration also starts first thing in the morning (so as to allow more time for standing and singing), so we drove to Denton the night before and explored the downtown area. For those who haven't been, one of the key features is a three-story used bookstore housed in a former opera house. There are nooks and closets and rooms and alcoves and balconies. You could be looking at a bookcase titled "European Period Horror" and look around the corner to find a small room of "Metaphysical Fiction" beyond which is the "Marine Biology and Maths" closet. There was a shelf of "Nude Male Photography" that we walked quickly past on our way to "Philosophical Biographies" and "Blacksmithing."
Really. One wonders whether the wee folk often stop by Denton on holiday from the Shire and whether there was a Hobbit-sized Pipe Lore section we missed by not going to the basement, perhaps in a closet behind a round door. 
Unfortunately, we got there 30 minutes before closing time, so we didn't get too much time to explore. (However, dinner at GreenHouse is HIGHLY recommended. They may not be able to spell bruschetta, but dammmmnnn, they can cook it.) But in that 30 minutes, I was able to find two books on my reading list.

The first, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, was beautifully written, compelling, immersive...and just plain brutal. By about page 300, I was like, "I am going to keep reading this book until I finish it because YOU OWE AT LEAST ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS A HAPPY ENDING AND I'M GONNA KEEP READING UNTIL THEY GET IT!" If you count "rebuilding an orphanage after your family is exploded in front of you, you're almost murdered, and you have to abandon your goat" qualifies as a happy ending, SCORE!

The second book, Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, was significantly less gruesome, but just as powerful, though in a fantastical, witty style. The book deals in many ways with the boxes we shove ourselves (and others) into. The main character Warren, who is biracial, looks "white" but identifies as "black" and is constantly trying to pick a side, with often hilarious consequences. When he finds a mixed race group, you'd think he was finally on the path to self-acceptance...but what happens is the group subdivides itself, using a ludicrously sketchy test, into "oreos" and "sunflowers." By the climax, you have a very segregated group inside the walls of the compound being picketed by blacks who feel they're too white and whites who feel they're too black. 

In a way, the book is a microcosm of America. We reduce our identities to bumper sticker slogans and then treat any difference of opinion as a betrayal of the group. Yet, if we were to take a few giant steps back off the emotional ledge, we might start to see that we are too big and complex for the boxes we're trying to cram into, that trying to fit into one category (liberal, conservative, whatever) forces us to dangle important parts of ourselves over the edge. When Warren and his daughter are sitting together, staring down into the id of an empty cellar, you get the feeling that maybe he's finally grasped the ridiculousness of all those boxes and that, ultimately, the only box that matters is love and that isn't a box at all. 
Bob, however, can cram himself into any box and still look adorable.