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Hamster Brain: July 2015

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Hamster Brain

 The book of my heart is out in the world, awaiting judgment from agents and an editor. In the past, I have valiantly tried to manage my expectations, to shield myself from the terrible low that comes with rejection. This time, though, I decided, no, I will not pretend to not be hopeful. I’m going to hope. I’m going to imagine the best happening. There is every reason to be optimistic, and I’m going to enjoy this beautiful time of believing dreams come true.
This week, I’ve noticed an unexpected side effect. I call it Hamster Brain. Here is a perfect demonstration of what it’s like in my head while I wait. And wait. And wait.:

And wait.

You can imagine how hard it is to do anything–like write or create syllabi or even clean the flippin’ bathroom–with such energetic hamsters trampling all over my synapses. Seriously, I have the attention span of a second grader, a fact I can state with confidence because I used to teach second grade and used to play The Hamster Dance song for my students. It was always a big hit. There’d be dancing and laughing and a general reluctance to sit back down and practice multiplication tables.

I am in the general reluctance phase. A general reluctance to do anything that requires more than a twenty minute commitment. Even a movie seems like too much right now. Writing this blog post is hard, people, and I’ve had to take several breaks to watch various versions of the Hamster Dance on YouTube to make it this far.

Whatever it is, this Hamster Brain time of my life, I’m grateful for it. It’s a whole lot better than my usual anticipate-with-dread approach to the publishing world, that gloomy layering on of protective coating over my much too sensitive skin in preparation for the worst. If the worst does happen, it’s going to suck and pretending like I didn’t expect it to happen anyway won’t make it suck less.

So, my writing life advice is: enjoy the waiting. Enjoy the anticipation. There’s nothing you can do to circumvent it, so you might as well have fun while you’re in it.

The Trouble with Mother’s Day

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I hate Mother’s Day. Let me present my case:

Exhibit A: The many arts and crafts projects of elementary school, brought home in all their messy glory and presented in hopes of pleasing her–cards, paper flowers, cards, other kinds of paper flowers, and oh yeah, cards. It was stressful. My mother didn’t like flowers, never seemed particularly impressed with the cards. I knew it. She knew it. Yet still every year, I was forced to make them, and once made, present them. I pretended she’d be surprised. She pretended she liked them. It cemented in me the feeling that the whole holiday was a fake.

Exhibit B: Real flowers. Everything about Mother’s Day is decorated with flowers. It’s practically Christmas without a tree or Easter without eggs to not have flowers on Mother’s Day. My mom, though, was allergic. Severely allergic. What is the equivalent of giving flowers for Mother’s Day? In my child’s mind: nothing. And it was all her fault that I failed in my daughterly duty to supply flowers, like she chose her allergies on purpose to disrupt this most sacred of days.

Exhibit C: Traditional Mother’s Day Breakfast in Bed and/or Fancy Brunch: I never made her burnt toast or spilled orange juice on her bed while presenting a home made breakfast on a tray, complete with a single rose bud in a vase. She was a woman of unpredictable sleep cycles, but the one thing I could count on is that there was no way I could ever wake up before her. Besides, she just wanted to go to Denny’s. So we did. Like so many other days of the week. Denny’s, it was our kitchen-away-from-kitchen.

Exhibit D: Mother’s Day 2006. I called her, like I’m supposed to, but didn’t feel like talking much. Besides, I had plane tickets to go visit in her two weeks. Well, not really visit her. Fly into Phoenix, stay a few days, then borrow a car to drive to a friend’s wedding in California. Drive back to her house, drop off the car, fly back to Florida. But I was going to spend some time with her, right?
Then she said something–I don’t remember what–that made me mad. I was proud of myself, though, because I didn’t get into it with her. It was Mother’s Day after all. I could let it go, be the bigger person, not let her get to me.
I know I said I love you when we hung up. I know because my grandmother trained everyone in the family to always say it when you hang up. You never know if it’s the last time you’ll talk to that person again. My grandmother, so morbid, right? But it was the last time I spoke with my mother. Mother’s Day 2006. She died four days later.

Exhibit E: Mother’s Day 2007-2016. Pure suckage. Sure, there are lots of things out there about the mothers we’ve lost–sappy, sentimental poems and well meaning memes about how much our mothers loved us. My mother did love me. Fiercely. And I loved her just as much. But since the day my hormones kicked in, it wasn’t easy. We weren’t flowers and candy and I-love-you-no-I-love-you-more mother and daughter. We were complicated. Or maybe a better word is complex. Probably like a lot of mothers and daughters. But the pressure of Mother’s Day to pretend to be all-American Hallmark card versions of ourselves makes me feel every May like I’ve disappointed her, keep on disappointing her, will always disappoint her because on Mother’s Day 2006, I was impatient. I wasn’t careful. I can’t remember what our last conversation was even about.  All I know is that it was on Mother’s Day.

And I hate Mother’s Day.

Peeling Away at Writing: August 2014

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The realtor said our windows needed a good cleaning to let in more light. She wasn’t wrong. We’ve lived in our condo for fourteen years and the last time I even attempted to clean them was during our first few months of residence. What I discovered that first, unsuccessful time was that our windows had a solar coating on them, a plastic film meant to insulate the condo and keep utility bills down. In those days we were poor, like going bankrupt poor, so saving money on utilities sounded good to us. The fact that the film can’t be cleaned, that any attempt to remove water build up from the constant summer rains resulted in scratches that looked worse than dirt, seemed a small price to pay for lower electric bills.

We’re not poor anymore. (Hooray for the real job that starts next week!) Michael said, “Why don’t we try removing it?” With a little Google-foo, he discovered they should peel right off. He used a razor blade to loosen up a corner, and voila! The film peeled off in a couple of big strips. Light flooded into the kitchen. It was a beautiful sight.

Not so beautiful was the entire pane of adhesive left behind. Google-foo had also revealed that if you have plastic film on your windows, you should replace it every two to three years. Oops. We don’t even know when the film was first put on, and fourteen years of no maintenance had convinced the film it had nothing to worry about.

Two and half days and many, many razor blades later, we’d shaved the adhesive off of all 48 window panes. Yes, 48. Gotta love jalousie windows. I can’t even explain which muscles hurt because they were muscles that I didn’t even know existed. The satisfaction, though, of the clear bright windows was tremendous. The palm trees! The sunlight! It was gorgeous.

This was not my first experience with peeling. A previous owner had painted all the tile, the bathtub, and the toilet in our bathroom. The bathroom colors are original to its 1953 construction–turquoise and peach. It’s understandable that someone would want to paint them, right? Except the person painted everything, you guessed it, turquoise and peach. It took almost a week and many different chemical concoctions to undo the paint damage, but much like with the windows, I was quite pleased when the whole thing was done and the tiles were restored to their 1953 glory.

(Sadly, the turquoise toilet’s plumbing was too old to update and so the whole fixture had to be replaced. I only spent like two days scraping the paint off it, so no big deal. At least we still have the turquoise tub!)

There’s something very satisfying about peeling. As a kid, I loved to get a good sunburn so I could peel the skin off, one strip at a time. I like peeling price tags off purchases–the stickier the better. Paint, parking decals on my car that need to be replaced, fingernails, anything that I can grab an edge of and then pull in any direction is a pleasure.

Perhaps I enjoy the challenge. Once you have an edge and start pulling, a couple of things can happen. One, all the material can come off in one pull. So satisfying! Alas, that dream rarely comes true. It is more likely that the peel will start off wide and strong and gradually taper, taper until it comes to a point and ends. Then, you have to find a new way into the material, a new edge, a new corner, and start the process all over again.

Techniques can be developed to help narrow peels widen back out again, to keep a nice peeling strip from ending too soon. You can apply pressure at the edges of the strip, encouraging it to widen. You can pause, reassess, and apply pressure at a different angle. You can employ tools like a paint scraper or razor blade to sharpen your focus. Sometimes, one technique is enough to keep a strip from tapering off. Sometimes, you do everything you know how to do, and it doesn’t matter. That strip won’t peel. It’s going to peter off into nothing no matter how diverse your approaches.

In the two and a half days I spent peeling adhesive off my window panes, I didn’t write a thing. I didn’t write for weeks afterwards, either, because prepping a condo to sell is time consuming and exhausting and mighty, mighty anxiety provoking. But last week, I finally reentered my new novel-in-progress, a project I’ve been working on for about a year. I was going gangbusters until I ran into a wall of I-don’t-know-where-this-goes-now. I took a break until a scene opening bubbled up in my mind. I wrote it, ran out of steam. Had to wait for a new bubble.

I followed my scene bubbles where they led. Some resulted in fantastic new scenes. Some didn’t go much of anywhere, no matter how I massaged them. That’s when it hit me: Writing is like peeling.

The story is a whole piece, but in order to get to it, I’m looking for a way in, like my vision is obscured by all the paint and adhesive left behind from previous construction projects. So, I look for a bubble. A crack in the surface. Then, I grab an edge and pull, pull, pull. Sometimes I get a whole, glorious complete chunk. Sometimes, no matter how many razor blades I use, I only get flakes. Tools, chemical concoctions, techniques–I apply them all. My goal: reveal the beauty.

Like both my window and bathroom projects, the key is perseverance.You don’t know what each strip will reveal or how long it will last. You only know that you have to search for that edge, that way in, and follow it for as long as you can. That, my friends, is both the joy and frustration of peeling and writing. Both are addictive and activate that little part of my brain that leans toward OCD, but there’s no better feeling than peeling back layers to reveal what a piece was meant to be all along.

Marina Morning: 3-14-14

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South Beach Marina

I’m enjoying the cooler weather with my dog, Houdini, by taking a long walk through the Miami Beach Marina.

We amble along behind an older man in a polo and khaki shorts who’s a little stocky with a big belly hanging over his waistband.

The man stops, drops to one knee, then the other. 

Oh my God, I think, he’s having a heart attack. What do I do? 

He reaches out in front of him, plants both hands on the sidewalk. He holds himself there for a moment. Is he about to collapse?

I don’t have my phone! No one’s around. Do I even remember the CPR class I took twenty years ago? Panic freezes me in place. It’s true that I’d be the first one to die in a horror movie.

Just as a weak plan to run for help forms in my slow moving brain, the man kicks back his legs and starts doing push ups. 

Ah, South Beach, how you continue to surprise me. Even older, portly men are in better shape than I am.

girl-791177_640

Tyra Banks, Writing, and Me

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Tyra Banks, you fierce, beautiful business tycoon you, thank you for the many writing lessons that binge watching past cycles of America’s Next Top Model provides.

At first, I thought my love of your show was fever induced, but in spite of my husband’s teasing, it turns out that those hours spent in front of the screen provided some much needed instruction in how to be a successful artist.

It’s Not Enough To Be Pretty

AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL--UPN's hit dramality series featuring world-renown supermodel Tyra Banks as Executive producer and host, will return for a fourth cycle with an all new group of women fiercely competing for their chance to reign in the high stress, high stakes world of a top model. Gallery Photo: Hyungwon Ryoo/UPN. (c) 2005 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

(c) 2005 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

It seems that every season, there’s at least one girl who takes gorgeous photos but as the episodes unfold, the judges become bored by her. “It’s not enough to be a pretty face,” Nigel will say. The panel nods in agreement. At first it seemed like such a ridiculous statement. Of course it’s about being pretty. It’s modeling, for goodness’ sake.

You, Tyra, made me understand. You claim that one of the purposes of your show is to expand what beauty means, and I believe you are in fact much harder on traditionally pretty girls than you are on the more exotic ones. Because it’s not enough to be pretty. As Mr. Jay often says, you’ve got to bring it.

Bring what? Ah, there it is. The Je ne sais quoi of the whole show, the thing that makes each cycle new and exciting. It’s impossible to say what an artist must bring to her art. Passion? Certainly. Craft, commitment, joy? Yes, yes, yes. Yet even these things are not enough. When a girl is successful it’s because she brings something unexpected, something unique, something that even the judges are hard pressed to articulate. Is each winner pretty? Undoubtedly. Outside of the narrow strictures of beauty, though, they are also something more. More is what makes them stand out.

Writing is no different. There is an intangible element to what makes a piece of writing successful that all the lessons on craft and marketing can’t quite contain. What is it? Je ne sais quoi, exactly, but like the judges, I know it when I see it. America’s Next Top Model reminds me that pretty writing isn’t good enough. I’ve got to bring it. Work it. Own it.

It’s All In The Details

vampire-827119_640Still, of course the models are all pretty. It’s a given of the industry. Just as being able to pose, knowing one’s angles, and having a signature runway walk are also expected. The building blocks to becoming a successful model are understood by all the contestants, and when one is weak in a particular area, the price is often being sent home.

“Stop posing!” Jay will shout at one of the girls during a photo shoot. She gives him a confused look. I’m confused, too. Aren’t models supposed to pose?

“Beautiful picture but there’s nothing in the eyes,” one of the judges will say during panel. Isn’t a beautiful picture the point of modeling?

Once again Tyra comes to the rescue. She gets up and shows how a subtle angling of the hips, a narrowing of the eyes, or a slight shift of weight changes a pose into a statement, an emotion, a space where the model and viewer connect.

“Smile with your eyes,” she often says. There’s a thing she does, a wide-open squint,that makes a picture come alive.

The difference then is that poses are stagnant, but dynamic engagement in the process creates art. Yes, the basics are important. Every model must master them. But it’s the details that make her memorable.

Writers must master the basics of craft, too. Sentence and story structure, point of view, dialogue, setting, pacing, tension, all the building blocks of story telling must be solid. If not, the writing will never be published. However, the basics aren’t enough. Stories can’t look posed, either–that is, the parts in all the correct places but lacking the presence, depth, and heart that true engagement brings to a piece. The writer needs to be attentive to exquisite details, to the small moments that elevate craft to art.

Commit

girl-1272781_640The worst photo shoots come from models who don’t fully commit to the moment. They go through the motions, throw out poses, stare off at the horizon, but they never quite go all the way. Don’t snarl with your lips­­––growl! The snarl will come with it. Don’t open your mouth in a silent scream––let it out! Pretending and doing are two different things.

When I look at my writing, I have to consider: is this real? Or am I pretending on the page? Writing that’s real has emotional resonance. Pretend writing looks pretty on the page but is quickly forgotten.

One of the biggest criticisms I got of my first book (which didn’t sell) is that it was too melodramatic. When I got the idea for Fancy White Trash, I remember thinking, melodramatic? I’ll show you melodramatic. Instead of shying away from my love of soap opera-like drama, I fully embraced it. The lesson I learned was not to straddle the fence. Whatever a piece of writing wants to be, push it as far as it will go.

Just as a viewer can tell when a model is faking emotion, so too can a reader detect falseness in writing.

It Takes A Team

girls-783501_960_720Many of the girls who compete on America’s Next Top Model don’t seem all that exceptional looking at first. Then, bam, put a girl through hair and make-up, give her a couture gown, hang her off a cliff, and damn, you’ve got a super model. The girl had it in her the whole time, but sometimes she needs help reaching her full potential.

Tyra has a particularly good eye for hair. Famously, at least one model cries during the make-over episode when Tyra has the model’s hair chopped off or changes the color. Invariably, though, the changes make the girl more “modelesque,” as they say on the show. There is often discussion of the difference between being commercial and couture. A model can be commercially pretty but not have that extra oomph that makes her couture.

In writing, I think writers are often happy when the writing is good enough. It’s pretty, marketable, and my critique group loves it. However, those things don’t make it publishable. Sometimes, a writer needs a team—like a mentor, an agent, an editor, or sometimes all three­­––to take the writing to the next level. It’s hard to see ourselves as we really are. An outside eye can help push us further than we can go on our own.

When Bianca had to shave her entire head because of all the damage to her hair, she cried. She thought she was beautiful coming into the competition. Who was she without her hair? It was a difficult transition for her, but eventually she saw what was obvious to the audience as soon as her hair was gone: the new cut emphasized her incredible bone structure and striking smile.

Revision can be like a traumatic make-over. It can feel like the editor is picking on the thing that you feel defines the piece. Go ahead and cry. But then shave your manuscript down. Maybe there’s something more beautiful under all the camouflage you created. Don’t be satisfied with commercial. Always strive for couture.

You’ve Got To Want It

model-1246488_640Season after season, girls confess to the camera how much they want to be America’s Next Top Model. As the seasons unfold, though, it becomes clear that not everyone wants it enough. Home life, self esteem, conflict in the house, depression, illness, redefining life goals—all these things often get in the way of a model doing her best.

Tyra, you are such a goddess. When a girl talks about a death back home or how ill she was during a shoot, you are all compassion and heart. Then, you point out the bottom line. A model’s job is to deliver. You counsel compartmentalizing. Feel your feelings, then put them away. Get the job done.

As a writer, it is so easy to be distracted by life. Constant pulls on my attention, my time, my health, and my bank account often make me question whether I should be writing at all. So, Tyra, thanks for the advice. Deal with it. Put it away. Deliver. I can do that. Because you know what? I do want it.

Attitude

But it’s not enough to want it. You’ve got to really want it. Don’t hope. Don’t expect. Work for it. Models get eliminated from the show because of attitude problems more than any other reason. Here’s the advice I’ve compiled from watching girl after girl get sent home:

  • Don’t be over it. Show the judges that you’re committed and even though set backs come your way, you won’t give up. When the judges feel like you’ve given up, they give up on you, too.
  • Don’t be conceited. The world doesn’t owe you anything. You’re not better than everyone else. The judges are in a position to help you. Don’t alienate them with a sense of entitlement.
  • Don’t be fake. You are the only one who can do this. Show the judges who you are. When others connect with you, they want to help you.
  • Be grateful.
  • Be charming.
  • Don’t let others bring you down. Stay above the fray. Sure, it’s a competition, but if you stay focused on doing your best, the rest will sort itself out.

For writers, yeah. All of the above. Substitute the word editors for judges, and no more explanation is necessary.

Know Who You Are

model-1439909_640Some girls get on the show, hoping that becoming America’s Next Top Model will be their identity. These girls are never successful. When such a girl is in the bottom two but given one more chance, Tyra will caution her, “The judges say they don’t know who you are.”

It can be easy in writing to mimic those writers and genres we admire, but with enough practice, eventually your own writing voice emerges. Don’t be satisfied with sounding like someone else. Keep writing until you are the only person who could write what you’re writing.

Tyra also tells her contestants to study themselves. Know what makes you unique. When you know the ways in which you are different from your competition, you are better able to highlight those features and abilities.

At the end of the day, the winner isn’t the best. There are many beautiful women who could be America’s Next Top Model. There are many amazing writers whose work deserves publication. The main lesson I’ve learned from America’s Next Top Model is that there is no such thing as the best. The winner is the last one standing.

Thank you, Tyra, for showing me what it takes to be the last one standing.

I may not get a contract with Elite modeling, a spread in Seventeen magazine, or a $100,000 Cover Girl contract, but I did get enough inspiration to keep writing for another year2

The Books that Mattered: Books That Transcend Childhood

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Source: Amazon

After reading The Books That Mattered by Frye Gaillard, I also had the pleasure of hearing him speak about the books that shaped him as a writer and human being at the 2013 Spalding M.F.A. in Writing Residency.

Both his reader’s memoir and his speech resonated with me, and I started thinking about which books have mattered the most to me. Shortly thereafter, I started getting tagged by all my writer friends with the Facebook 10 Books That Stuck With You task. Some people annotated their lists, but in the crush of end of the semester grading, I tossed out some titles and authors and moved on. But the question has stayed with me. What books have stuck with me? The answer is certainly longer than ten, so I’ve split my list into sections. The first installment is Books That Transcended Childhood.

  1. P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? is a harrowing narrative about a lost baby bird looking for her mother. She asks the cat, the dog, the cow, even a construction tractor, if they are her mother. All of them say no. Just when I think there’s no hope, that the baby will be lost forever, she does find her mother bird. There is such tremendous relief in the moment of connection between baby and mother that I read that book over and over as a child.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/47/Areyoumymother.gif

Source: Wikipedia

No matter how many times I read Are You My Mother? I never felt less anxious about the baby bird’s fate. Perhaps I even connected with the book because of the anxiety. My mother made it plain that if I ever got lost, it would be my fault. My job was to stick to her, and if I ever wandered off, she’d say, “Hope you find a good home!” So, there was some anxiety about being separated from my mother, my home. But I also knew that I was loved, and so however anxious a situation might get, I knew, and the book reassured me, that there would be a happy ending.

As an adult, I see a bigger thread emerge. As an artist, a writer, a woman who has never quite fit in, my life has been a long search for others like me. Oh, the anxiety of new situations, new schools, new jobs, and new social situations where I’m not quite sure who my people are. Oh, the relief when I do find my people. I don’t think my experience is unique. Humans search for connection. Are You My Mother? is about the torture of the search and the promise that if we don’t give up, connection and acceptance will be our reward.

  1. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf is such an all time favorite of mine that I wrote an essay about it in graduate school that won me free books for a semester. Ferdinand is a young bull who loves to sit in the field and smell flowers. When the men from the city come to look for bulls to fight in the ring, they are so impressed with his bee sting induced bucking and running that they take him to compete in the bullfights. When the big moment comes, Ferdinand is released into the ring. Instead of fighting, he sits down and smells the flowers in the ladies’ hair. He’s shipped back home where he returns to his favorite tree.

    Source: Wikipedia

Ferdinand is my hero. He is different from everyone else, but it doesn’t bother him. He knows what he loves to do, and he doesn’t let anyone pressure him into being different. He is a pacifist, but he doesn’t judge others for their decisions. He quietly makes decisions for himself and sticks to it.

I remember when my mom told me what happens in a bullfight, I was shocked and outraged. They’re planning to do what to Ferdinand? In this story, I see the beginnings of my pacifism, animal rights advocacy, and vegetarianism. I also think that repeated readings of Ferdinand made me feel okay about being different and honed in me the belief that everyone deserves the chance to be who they are free of pressure to be something else.  All my life, I have struggled with being a people pleaser.  The Story of Ferdinand  reminds me that it’s more important to please myself.

  1. My third book on the list is one I hated: Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. My mother swore that I loved this book, but I remember trying to sell it at a yard sale and her anger when she discovered that I wanted to get rid of my favorite book. I don’t remember asking to hear the book a million times, but she said I begged for it. What I remember is the horrible pressure the character felt to eat something he didn’t want to eat. He is bribed and tricked and finally does eat the green eggs and ham. And he likes them! What a betrayal.

One Sunday, we were at a church fundraising breakfast, and the eggs really were green. My mom wouldn’t let me eat them. “But, green eggs!” I said, “Just like the book.”

“No one really eats green eggs,” Mom said. They made an announcement that the green came from the grease and that the eggs were safe to eat. My mom still wouldn’t let me eat them.

That day at the fundraiser may have been the beginning of my dislike of eggs, but it sure wasn’t the beginning of my being a picky eater. Whip cream, melons, puddings, bananas, coffee, iced tea, and so very many more–there were a lot of foods I refused to eat.

“You’ll grow into them,” my dad said.

“No, I won’t,” I always thought in reply.

Fast forward thirty (cough, cough) years, and we were both right. I did grow into a taste for wine and weird cheeses, but most of the things I wouldn’t eat as a child, I still despise. After struggling with allergies for years, I finally underwent the painful process of allergy testing. Guess what? Most of the things people tried to force on me for years belong to families of things I’m allergic to.

So, take that Green Eggs and Ham. Sometimes a kid doesn’t want to eat something because it’s gross. Sometimes, the adults should listen to the kid and leave her alone with her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Except I turned out to be allergic to peanuts, too, but that’s another story.

Little Diana and The Pink Dress: A Mostly True Story

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Mujer says she is bringing me a surprise. I hope it is a present. I hope it is a puppy. I hope it is something sweet.

When my grandmother descends the plane’s steep staircase, stepping onto the tarmac on an overcast Sacramento day, she is holding the hand of a small girl. Mujer doesn’t look like she has a present for me, but maybe it’s too big to carry. Maybe it will be on the conveyor belt inside her large, blue suitcase.

“This is Little Diana.” Mujer beams her famous smile. I know who that girl is. Debbie’s daughter. My niece. But I don’t talk to her, not for the whole long drive from the airport to our house.

“Where’s my surprise?” I ask after watching Mujer unpack her suitcase for hours and hours.
Mujer laughs. “The surprise is Little Diana. I brought her to see you. Why don’t you take her outside to play?”
This is worse than no present. Diana is barely two, a baby. What am I supposed to do with a baby?

Diana follows me to my bedroom. She touches Bianca and Bernard, my stuffed mice from The Rescuers. She hugs Pooh and makes Cookie Monster’s eyes rattle. This is so upsetting that I have to put on my pink dress.

I am not supposed to play in my pink dress. It is delicate, with white lace and a skirt that goes all the way to the ground, like a real dress for a real lady. But the best thing about the dress is that when I spin around, it billows out around me like a bell.

In the backyard, there is a swing set with a slide and monkey bars. Diana is too little, though, so I put her in the sandbox. I don’t play in the sandbox any more because I’d recently discovered that the Indian Clay I used to make sculptures of tiny towns by adding water and sand to make the clay more pliable was not clay at all. Carol, who is ten and therefore knows everything, says there’ve never been Indians here.

“Then what’s this?” I’d asked her last week, showing her the house I’d build out of three chunks of Indian clay.

“Cat poop.”

Luckily, Diana is a baby, so she won’t know any better. I leave her in the cat poop. She’s happy there, giggling and being stupidly cute, until she sees me swinging high overhead like a trapeze artist in a sparkly dress. She cries and cries, so I go on the slide instead.

I whoosh down the slide’s metal surface, like a sleek otter. The pink dress makes the journey smooth, especially when the hem tears a little, and I can cover my feet, too.

Diana’s still crying, so next I spin and spin in my pink dress. I spin so fast that I can’t hear her, or if I do, it sounds like “whaaAAaaAAaa.”

“What’re you doing to Diana?” My mom, Big Diana, comes out of the house. “You’re not supposed to wear that dress outside.”

A lady always wears a dress. I stand my ground, silent but resolved.

“Get Diana,” Mom says, but when I don’t move, she stomps over and yanks me by the arm. I stumble on the ripped hem and fall.

Grass stains! Grass stains! On my knees, on the hem. Now, I’m the one crying. A lady never has grass stains on her pink dress.

“It was getting too small for you anyway,” Mom says. “We can cut it down to fit Little Diana.”

Her words only make me cry harder. I can’t get off the ground. My dress is ruined and stolen by a baby and now I can never be a real lady.

South Beach in the Morning

Morning in My Neighborhood

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Walking home soaking wet from my post-yoga dip in the ocean, a guy in board shorts calls out from his balcony, “How’s the water today?” and I say, “It’s beautiful!” and he grins and says, “I’m on my way there now.” 

 

A block later, a gardener turns off the leaf blower so I can pass without getting blasted and says, “How’s the beach?” and I say, “It’s beautiful today!” and he smiles and nods like it makes him happy to hear it. 

On the corner, an elderly man dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt tips his hat as I pass and says,”Bueno,” and I say, “G’morning” and this huge feeling comes over me like a surprise ocean swell, and it takes me another block to figure it out. 

Home. I’m overwhelmed by this feeling of home.

The Occasional Writing Blog

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occasional, blog, writing, Marjetta, GeerlingMarjetta GeerlingOccasional is one of those words that I always spell wrong. Now, I’m a writer and a teacher of writing and if you spell something wrong on an essay you turn into me, I will purple-pen (because red is too harsh) shame you about it. However, there are a few words that no matter what, I spell wrong. Every time. Occasional. Separate. Gray.

I could go on or I could make apologies, but let’s simply leave it at the idea that when my brain decides on how to spell a word, no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway it. So, when Michael suggested The Occasional Blog as the title for my new endeavor, I wasn’t enthusiastic. But then I thought, hey, maybe I’ll finally learn how to spell that word correctly.

In college, I had a summer job on campus that provided housing in an off-campus apartment complex that the University of Redlands owned. My neighbors, a couple of fellow students also working on campus for the summer, complained that one of the chairs in their living room was broken. Someone from housing came to inspect the chair and decided that it was indeed broken. She promised the guys that she would get them a “new occasional chair” to replace the old one. Later, Joel confided in me that he didn’t want an occasional chair. He wanted a chair that was always a chair. It was a joke all summer. When is an occasional chair not a chair? When it’s a bed, when it’s a chip holder, when it’s a clothes dryer…you get the picture.

An occasional blog, then, is one that will mostly be a website where things don’t change. However, on this particular page, I will make announcements about upcoming events, post pictures, and yes, even blog. I’m not sure what about yet, so if you have suggestions, shoot me a message. Until our next occasion, happy writing!