Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

“What I Did This Summer,” in 1,000 words or less

The kids of Arlington County go back to school tomorrow. Some of them will undoubtedly be asked to write a “What I did this summer” essay, so I’ve decided to join them.

If anecdotal evidence and comic strips are any indication, kids loathe this assignment. I’m pretty sure the teachers of Orange Hunt Elementary and Lake Braddock Secondary never inflicted it on me, but now that I’m staring it down, I think I’m starting to understand the dread. Being forced to break up with summer—especially a really good one– is hard enough, but having to relive the relationship on paper while the wound is still fresh? That’s a special torture. Compounding the pain for these kids is the likelihood that I they probably haven’t written a full sentence for months, and now, like a couch potato drafted into a mandatory jogging program, they have to write a whole essay. Even if there’s some satisfaction once you’ve done the task, the actual doing can feel like a joyless slog.

I get it, kids, on both fronts. And I feel more than a pang of longing as I say goodbye to this particular summer, which featured adventures like:

  • Starting a new job. I’m 45, so changing jobs at this point in life is a bit like switching schools in ninth grade: exciting, scary, daunting, and invigorating. You’re not altogether new to the gig, so you have some sense of what your days will look like, but you don’t know anybody and you can’t find anything. Then again, maybe the new school analogy doesn’t quite fit here. I’ve joined a company loaded with millennials, so perhaps it’s more like Senior Citizens Day at the local high school. Regardless, I’m pleased to report the kids are all right, to say the very least, and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to leave your comfort zone.
  • Storming Italy with Mom. We traveled from May 31 – June 10, and I meant to write about the trip the minute I got home, but like Donald Trump’s tax returns, my intentions somehow never materialized.  At this point, highlights are the best I can do. Our trip began in Naples, where my Aunt Caroline and Uncle Ed are living on a temporary assignment. Naples doesn’t get a lot of tourist love, perhaps because it’s let itself go a bit, but it’s situated in a picturesque location and is home to the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. As Ed drove us around town, I came to realize the official language of Naples isn’t Italian, it’s car horn. Ed’s not fluent yet, but I feel pretty good about his chances. Beyond driving, he and my aunt were incredible tour guides and hosts. Caroline chauffeured us to Gaeta – a lovely seaside town between Rome and

    Mom and Caroline in Naples

    Naples – and went on a ferry with us to the island of Capri, a place whose unique beauty I won’t diminish by attempting to describe it. Ed wins a special award for spending an entire Saturday driving all of us to various towns along the steep, curvy, incomparable Amalfi Coast (motto: “Where the sea is blue and the knuckles are white”). From there, Mom and I went on to Florence, where we art-ed it up at the Uffizi one day and hiked the Cinque Terre the next. That second excursion was my big idea, because the CT held the promise of spectacular, unique scenery. I hadn’t researched what the hiking would entail, but roving between the towns of this UNESCO World Heritage site on foot sounded right up my alley. At 73, Mom is very active and loves to watch her kids do things they love, so she gamely agreed. And boy, did the CT ever make good on its promise of spectacular. Not only did we get spectacularly beautiful scenery—the colorful hillside towns that look so charming in postcards leave you slack-jawed in person –but we also got IMG_1474spectacularly difficult hiking. The trails are clear but navigating them required taking lots of big steps up and down rocks and across streams. Had I realized up front that Cinque Terre is Italian for “blow a hammy,” I might have thought twice about subjecting Mom to it. IMG_1433But my mother, who was probably the oldest person in our guided group, powered right through it, a testament both to her fitness and her willingness to do anything for an Aperol Spritz. Our trip ended in Rome, perhaps my favorite city in the world and a very cool place to spend my 45th birthday. As I reflect on the trip, I think I liked the CT excursion best of all, and the memory of my mom hiking beside me along a cliff, wildflowers on one side and sea on the other, will always make me smile. Then again, when you’re hanging out with one of your favorite people, your favorite place is anywhere.

  • Trying standup comedy. I wrote about my first experience here. I did two more 5-minute sets, the second of which took place at a Georgetown Club called the Chinese Disco (which is neither Chinese nor disco, thanks for asking). I’m almost glad I don’t have video footage from that outing, because I’m not sure any of my material could compete with this photo. It has “Annual Christmas Card” written all over it.

Somehow this all just goes together.

So long, summer. I miss you already.

 

The Kentucky Book Fair: a blue-ribbon event in every way

Thus far, the Fates have looked out for me when I’ve done book events, and I hoped my trip to Frankfort to participate in the 34th annual Kentucky Book Fair would be no exception. I brought my parents with me, because every author worth her salt has groupies, or at least accomplices.

On Friday afternoon, the three of us touched down in Cincinnati, which is 80 miles away from Frankfort but offered the best flight options. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Cincinnati airport, but I’m going to guess not because, from the looks of things, nobody has. The joint is a nice, gigantic space that lacks nothing except travelers. The corridors were so vast and empty we could’ve launched into a floor routine unimpeded. We proceeded to the Alamo rental counter instead, where the agent asked if I’d like to upgrade from the Corolla-level vehicle I’d selected online.

Since we had a fair amount of luggage and planned to a bit of driving, I said, “Sure. What do you have?”

“What would you like?” the agent asked.

My father can’t stand this kind of dithering, so he took matters into his own hands and said, “I’ve always wanted a Cadillac.”

Though I knew he was kidding and just trying to get things moving, the agent didn’t and said, “It just so happens that we have a brand new one.”

And just like that, Dad had touched off a silent standoff between my “Why not?” philosophy and his “You Kids Don’t Appreciate the Value of Money” credo. I think nothing of driving four hours one way to buy bacon shirts, so really, Dad didn’t stand a chance. Moments later, we set off in a black Cadillac sedan equipped with a dashboard straight out of Star Wars. I couldn’t have imagined a better start.

On Friday night the three of us attended an author’s reception in downtown Frankfort at the Kentucky Historical Society, a lovely facility whose impressive exhibits tell the story of Kentucky and its people. As we enjoyed a glass of wine and snacks from the tasty buffet, we were given a warm welcome by none other than the Lieutenant Governor, Crit Luallen. She discussed the crucial role the KBF plays in promoting literacy, as well as raising funds for the school and public libraries to which the KBF donates its profits. I felt fortunate and honored to be a part of it. My groupies were pretty excited, too.

To top things off, we had the good fortune to sit at a table with an author from Mississippi named Dean Smith and the good friend who’d road-tripped with her. (Dean also understands the importance of groupies/accomplices.) We spent the next hour sharing stories about writing, divorce, and families, and laughing like we’d been friends for years. As we were comparing GPS goofs, Dean and her friend explained that, instead of taking them to the bed and breakfast they’d booked for the weekend, their GPS led them to a funeral home. When the GPS said, “You’ve reached your final destination,” it took on a whole new meaning. I looked forward to seeing them again at the fair on Saturday.

The next morning, my groupies helped me get set up at the fair and then I sent them off with the Caddy to do some touring. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is in Louisville, an hour’s drive from Frankfort. The Derby has long been on Dad’s bucket list, and though my parents couldn’t quite pull that off, they could at least check out the fabled venue and take in the live races scheduled for that day.

They were off to the races, and I settled in for eight hours of reader-meeting and book-talking. I had been placed at a table with Marie Parsons and Laura Weddle, native Kentuckians who’d taken up writing after retiring from decades of teaching college English together. Marie had written a novel called The Devil’s Back and Laura authored two collections of short stories, People Like Us and Better Than My Own Life. These women are my parents’ age or older and probably wondered why in the world they’d been stuck next to a 40-something humor writer from DC. But instead of just keeping to themselves, which they easily could have done, they decided to get to know their new neighbor. I soon realized I’d landed on the best street in the neighborhood. We spent hours covering topics like how it’s never too late to pursue a dream, how difficult it can be to find true and lasting love (Laura’s one of the few who seems to have figured it out), and what in the heck had happened to my parents. They’d left the KBF in the Caddy at 10, and two hours later, I hadn’t heard from them.

My groupie worries receded when I heard someone call my name and turned to see my dear friend Andrea, who I met in first grade at Orange Hunt Elementary School. Andrea and her family had moved to Lexington several years earlier, something I wouldn’t have known had I not posted about coming to the KBF on Facebook a few days earlier. Andrea and I hadn’t seen each other in at least 15 years, and I nearly hurdled Laura and Marie to get to her. I couldn’t believe she’d come to see me. As I hugged my old friend, my new friends beamed and took pictures. Whether or not I sold a single book, I’d already gotten so much more from the KBF than I came for.

My euphoria eventually subsided and my thoughts returned to my parents. It was after 2 and I still hadn’t heard from them. I called and texted. Nothing.

When I mentioned this to Laura and Marie, who knew my folks had taken off for Churchill Downs in the Caddy, Laura looked concerned and said, “They’re probably in a ditch somewhere.” And then she and Marie cracked up. I guess they seated me with the right people after all.

To my relief and to the great amusement of my new friends (including Dean and her pal, who’d stopped by to visit) the prodigal groupies returned an hour later. As the fair was winding down, Mom and Dad helped me pack up and I said a reluctant goodbye to Marie and Laura. I had no idea how many books I’d sold, but I knew the day had been a huge success in every way that matters.

A few hours later, Mom, Dad and I drove to Heirloom, an acclaimed restaurant in Midway, for a celebratory dinner. Over a salad of roasted butternut squash, frisee and thinly shaved local ham, we relived the events of the weekend.

I thanked them for supporting and encouraging me, including dropping what they were doing to come with me to Kentucky. As we clinked our glasses together for a toast, my mother smiled and said to me those three little words every child longs to hear: “It was fun.”

The roadies and the roadster.

The roadies and the roadster.

A writer looks at 43

I turned 44 a month ago and, like Jimmy Buffett taking a pirate’s look at 40, I’ve decided to take a writer’s look at 43.

I considered doing one of those 360-degree assessments beloved by Corporate America, but since I’ve reached an age where I’d just as soon ignore the view from behind, I’ve decided to go old school and treat it like a standard six-subject report card. I’ve replaced math and science—subjects I excelled at but disliked—with subjects I like and actually encounter in daily life but perhaps do not excel at, such as “love life.”

  1. Health/Sports: 95. If the human body were a house, the major systems in mine are all still humming along after 43 years. If the body were Planet Earth, continental drift has not occurred…yet. And because my parents sprang for extended warranty coverage on my joints at birth, this year’s athletic pursuits included running the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler and doing the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim with four awesome dudes on a team called Capital Punishment. (Capital Punishment is poised to make its triumphant return, by the way, so stay tuned.) I continued to captain the hapless, but not entirely winless, Smash Hits. We even managed to soldier on when our beloved CeCe passed away unexpectedly, though that’s one loss from which we’ll never recover.
  2. House: 71. My home behaved like a high school senior whose college acceptances have already rolled in. It performed solidly for the first three quarters and then just gave up altogether, ending the year by leaving me with a basement that required major waterproofing and an oven that needs a neurologist.
  3. Writing: 100. I finally wrote a book, fulfilling my lifelong dream (and my family’s worst nightmare). Few things rival the joy of holding a bound volume of words you wrote, but pretty much everything beats the pants off of actually writing those words. The process stinks, and anyone who tells you it doesn’t is either lying or not really a writer. But just like going to the gym, if you do it with consistency, you get better (usually), and the results make the grueling, painful, sweaty agony worthwhile. Almost.
  4. Travel: 88. My book dragged me all over the lower half of the East Coast. It connected me with readers at a beer garden in Arlington and a book festival in Charlottesville, as well as bookstores in D.C., the Northern Neck of Virginia, and Elizabeth City and Charlotte, North Carolina. That last stop was a doozy for two reasons. First, it was the backdrop for a reunion with my beloved elementary school librarian, who just happens to live in Charlotte. It is one thing to hold a bound volume of words you wrote; it’s another altogether to read those words to a woman who helped you learn to love and aspire to great writing. My event at Park Road Books also created an unexpected opportunity to get in touch with my Jewish side. I expect to release Mazel Tov With That Thing You’re Doing any day now.
  5. Absurdity: 100. By any measure, Year 42 should have set the high water mark. Any year during which two single men materialize from the ivy in your fenced-in backyard is going to be very tough to beat. Not only that, but that same year I took a trip to Alaska with my parents, both of whom are in their seventies. Over the course of that trip, the three of us went whitewater rafting (referred to more accurately as “getting a glacial facial”), flew in a tiny plane that set us down at the base of Denali, and zip-lined in the treetops of Skagway. You haven’t lived until you see your parents outfitted in construction helmets and a harness that looks like a seatbelt diaper. It had taken some convincing to get Dad to go on that last excursion because he’s afraid of heights. (Every Yankosky fears heights, but Dad’s got it really bad.) Naturally, he was the only one of us to wind up stuck mid-zip, dangling like the lone grape on a vine. Against that backdrop, you’d think 43 wouldn’t have stood a chance, absurdity-wise, yet it met the absurdity challenge admirably. In August of 2014, I got ordained by the Universal Life Church and presided over a wedding. Not only that, but the blog post I wrote about the whole experience led the ULC to contact me. The ULC has a pretty great sense of humor as churches go – disorganized religions are smart enough not to take themselves too seriously –so a fun correspondence began, as a result of which I was featured in the ULC blog, keeping company with ordained elites like Lon Burns, “America’s Favorite Jewish Cowboy Minister.” (And High Priest of Niche Marketing, apparently.) I’ve made new friends in high places, at least latitudinally speaking. My other favorite absurdity from last year? A copy of the book I wrote that started out in the hands of my oldest sister wound up in a sewer, from which it was rescued by my 16 year-old nephew.
  6. Love Life: 53. A score like that would have led my elementary school teachers to dub me “remedial,” but it might not be as bad as it looks. I went on lots of dates last year, and many of them were even with the same person for a stretch. Though nothing fit quite right, articles like this remind me that my struggles in this area are far from uncommon and lead me to view this much like the scores I got on practice tests I took before the bar exam: anything over 50 is quite respectable, and nobody’s acing it.

My average? 84. Not bad, but it makes a pretty good case for staying in school.

karen and mom

I failed to mention that Mom, my #1 fan, was there to watch me get my Yiddish on at Park Road Books.

 

A royal welcome from the Queen City and the Page Turners

After I left Park Road Books, a place that deserves its reputation as Charlotte’s favorite bookstore, I set off for the home of my brother’s in-laws.

You might wonder why I would visit a set of in-laws that aren’t even my own, relinquishing in the process one of the greatest benefits of being single. I made the trip because Chuck and Debbie, whom I refer to as the “stand-in-laws,” are people I’d want to be friends with under any circumstances. Debbie is also a long-time member of a book club called the Page Turners, and they invited me to join them for their February meeting.

A lot of book club meetings are just wine tastings with a slightly literary bent. At such gatherings, the book is not altogether irrelevant — it generates the alibi for the attendees’ monthly escape and then acts as a prop on the night of the meeting itself–but it’s relegated to the background. I thought the PT’s meeting might fit that stereotype until Debbie told me the group meets in June to pick its selections for the entire reading year.

I’ve known book clubs that choose the wine that far in advance, but never the book.

At the annual selection meeting, the PTs make a list of all the nominees and vote on them. They even track the candidates on a spreadsheet. This prevents inadvertent repeats and keeps hope alive for books that managed to land on the ballot but didn’t raise enough campaign money to get past the primaries.

February’s reading selection was the The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a book I intended to read.  I never quite got around to reading it, but that didn’t worry me. Good intentions constitute excessive preparation by most book club standards.

I realized I had applied the wrong set of standards the minute I arrived at the home of the hostess, Cindy, and saw the table she had begun to set.

the spread

From the artfully placed sugar cane stalk to the chicken curry made from scratch and with authentic ingredients (Cindy has formal culinary training, I learned), every item evoked Myanmar, where the The Art of Hearing Heartbeats takes place. Cindy even replicated cheroots, the popular cigars that appear throughout the book, by baking shortbread cylinders, dipping the ends in chocolate and rolling them in nuts to resemble ashes.

Lest you think the PTs are not a glorified drinking club but an eating one, don’t worry: they drink, too. Wine flowed freely all evening. Between the food and the wine, you’d have thought the business of the book club was done. But here’s the really remarkable thing: they actually talked about the book. A few of the participants –I think there were fourteen that night– even printed out questions from a reading guide. I found the whole thing unnerving.

In fact, the PTs spent a record-breaking 20 minutes engaged in non-stop book talk before the wine dragged them off on a tangent about how we take care of elder family in this country, as compared to a place like Myanmar. That led to an even more interesting tangent about the places old people wander off to when you don’t keep them on a leash. And that’s when I started to laugh so hard my mascara ran.

I was still wiping tears from my eyes when one of the PTs asked a question about my book. I’d practically forgotten about it amid the festivities. But these women hadn’t, and theirs was not just a passing interest. Not only had they read the book, they brought up details I wouldn’t have expected my mother to notice. I felt honored that my book had earned the attention of this fine group of readers.

Writer George Steiner has described books as “the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity,” a phrase that applies equally to the book-loving Page Turners.

Every writer needs a garret…or a beer garden.

People sometimes envision writers as lonely souls, holed up in a garret and getting third degree burns from candle wax. The house I bought in 2012 had electricity but no garret, so I usually write at the standup desk in my office or in the comfy chair next to my bedroom window. As nice as these writing spaces are, though, sometimes loneliness does set in.

When that happens, as it did on one of those freakishly gorgeous nights we had in the DC area last summer, I pack up my laptop and go someplace else to write for a while. Sometimes having people nearby helps, even if you’re not interacting with them.

The evening in question was a weeknight, which made a road trip impossible, so I did the next best thing: put on a pair of shoes and strolled to the Westover Beer Garden. Though technically an annex to a grocery store called the Westover Market, the WBG is the main attraction.

Locals love it for the beer, the food, and the outdoor patio that’s open year-round.  That patio, which I had visited only twice since moving to the neighborhood, held center stage in my mind as I walked towards it, laptop and manuscript in a bag over my shoulder.

I sat down at a partially occupied picnic table, took out my red pen, and got to work.  I immediately drew the attention of several regulars, of course, because few things rival the sheer excitement of live-action editing.

The regulars wanted to know what I was working on and, on hearing it was a collection of humor essays, asked when it would be finished. (That question brought me as close as I’ve ever come to starting a bar-clearing brawl.) One of them, a jovial fifty-something named Larry, mentioned he had a background in comedy.  This did not surprise me in the least, but what absolutely floored me was his offer to be a first reader.

When I left the WBG that night, I had gotten very little editing done but I didn’t care because I had a new community of enthusiastic supporters, a genre-appropriate reader, and a great place to write. I began to meet Larry there regularly, and every single time, the other regulars would stop by to ask how the book was coming along.

When I showed up at the WBG on Tuesday night bearing a copy of Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing, they might have been even happier than I was. And it sounds like the WBG is considering carrying my book there. (This strikes me as an excellent idea, because I certainly don’t recommend reading it sober.)

So for all you writers out there, stay focused on your craft, but don’t be afraid to leave the garret, especially if there’s good beer to be had.

The Westover Library, which is just a few doors down from the WBG, formed a club called “Books on Tap.” I think I’ve found my people.

 

 

Foul Play

Mom headed out town for a few days last Saturday morning, leaving my father home alone.

This state of affairs always makes me a little uneasy.  Dad’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but he’s not exactly gifted when it comes to domestic stuff.  He has, on occasion, mistaken the washer for the dryer, and his cooking repertoire consists mainly of dishes whose names involve words like “Oodles” and “Umm.”

To make sure Dad wouldn’t subsist entirely on a diet of fried baloney, I invited him to join me at two food-centric events I’d been invited to last weekend: a Pi(e) party on Saturday evening and a book-signing party on Sunday afternoon.

The Pi(e) party, hosted annually by a pal from law school and her husband, is a festive bash commemorating 3.14 with a massive assortment of sweet and savory pies.  No one in his right mind turns down a legitimate chance to scarf up a bunch of pie and call it “dinner,” so I knew Dad was a shoo-in for that event.

I felt less certain he’d want to go to the book party.  According to the invitation my friend Sue had sent me, a best-selling author of political nonfiction would talk about his latest work while guests enjoyed heavy hors d’oeuvres.  Dad likes news but finds much of politics disasteful.  Would the prospect of a bestselling author and cocktail meatballs whet Dad’s appetite enough to stomach a bit of politics?

He said, “Why not?  It sounds interesting,”  which I knew meant, “They’ll have Vienna sausages, right?”

Dad and I got to the Pi(e) Party fairly early last Saturday evening because years of attending had taught me to show up in the first wave of eaters.  We loaded up our plates with goodies and parked ourselves on a couch a few feet away from the swelling crowd.

As we started in on our respective samplers, Dad turned to me and said, “I know you think I don’t listen to you, Wheat, but sometimes I actually do.”

Rarely does an adult child get to experience the gratification of finding out she might know something her father didn’t.  I could hardly wait for Dad to finish his thought.

He raised a forkful of coconut crème pie and announced, “I want to die at home.”

Never let it be said that my father doesn’t know how to liven up a party.

On hearing that gem from Dad, I found myself wishing I’d kept my piehole shut months earlier instead of droning on about long-term care planning.  I also began to wonder whether inviting him to the book bash was such a great idea.

Last Sunday afternoon, Dad and I met at my place and I drove us over to Sue’s home in McLean.  Sue and her husband live in a lovely, tree-lined neighborhood where stately brick homes are separated from each other by a respectful, but not unfriendly, distance.

The hostess herself greeted us at the door, welcomed Dad with the warmth of a lifelong friend, and told us to make ourselves at home.  We went straight to the dining room and the refreshments.  I scooped stuffed grape leaves and olives on to a small plate as I admired  the unpretentious elegance of the dining room.  When I wandered off to take a closer look at a painting, another guest approached and struck up a conversation with me.  She introduced herself and said she’d come to the party with her husband.  She pointed at him, and I saw that he was chatting with Dad.

I felt a pang of anxiety.  What if Dad decided to spring his new “Die In Place” policy on this unsuspecting guest?  I was thinking only of that as I took my plastic fork and stabbed the lone olive on my plate. Or tried to.

Instead of pinning the hors d’oeuvre, my fork got only the faintest hold on it, a hold that it surrendered abruptly.  The liberated olive sailed across the dining room, landed on the floor, and rolled like a marble until it came to rest inches from Sue’s right toe.

She didn’t seem to notice and I thought I might get away with my faux pas until I caught my father’s eye across the room and saw him trying to suppress a smirk.

The book talk soon got underway, and the guest of honor proved to be a witty, engaging, funny speaker.  Dad looked like he was enjoying himself.  I relaxed.

When the talk ended, I offered to get our coats, which were in a room on the opposite side of the first floor.  When I returned to the dining room with coats in hand, Dad had vanished.   I didn’t see him as I worked my way through the crowded kitchen and family room.  I headed toward the front door –still no sign of him.

As I stood in the foyer, trying to figure out where my father might have gone, I heard a loud noise to my immediate left.  There, a closed door was being rattled in its frame by an unseen and panicked force.

Oh no, Dad’s locked himself in the bathroom!  Compared to this, the flying olive was nothing.

I grabbed the doorknob and gave it a hard yank.  The door flew open and out came not my father, but a very exuberant spaniel, which rocketed into the crowded living room like a fur missile.

Just then, my father appeared beside me.  I didn’t have to ask if he’d seen the whole thing, because he was once again tittering. We made a hasty exit.

This story doesn’t have a moral so much as two lessons.  I learned that Dad isn’t the one you can’t take anywhere, I am, and that sometimes “Who let the dogs out?” is not a rhetorical question.

Just the Two of Us

Sometime in 2004, roughly two years after I finished the full-time work/part-time law school grind and one year after I left big law firm life, my self-discipline started to take vacations.  After giving me faithful, constant companionship for five years straight, it had earned a respite, so the idea of sending it away for a little while didn’t bother me in the least.

Unfortunately, the vacation didn’t have the anticipated positive effect.  Instead of being all rejuvenated, my self-discipline returned diminished and weak, as if it had gone to Barbados and came back with dengue fever instead of a T-shirt.

I figured it was just a blip in our otherwise happy relationship and would pass, as these things usually do.  Weeks and then months went by, and still my self-discipline failed to rebound.  I sent it on longer and longer vacations, thinking that maybe it just needed a little more space.  It checked in less and less often, and then one day, I realized we’d drifted so far apart that I’d lost touch with it altogether.

It took me a while to miss the ol’ ball and chain because its absence freed me to give up some of the taxing stuff it was always trying to get me to do, like read novels in Spanish, and to indulge in the easy, fun stuff that I really wanted to do, like eat my body weight in chocolate-covered pretzels.

But eventually I missed it and decided to try to get back in touch with it.  It couldn’t be found through Facebook, Google, or any other passive stalking tactic, so last June, I left some serious bait for it.

I announced publicly (assuming the four people who read my blog constitute a “public”) that I was writing a book, and I mentioned the goals I had for it.  But when even that failed to lure my self-discipline back to me, I was forced to conclude that, instead of just going away, it had actually died.

This past September, just as I was considering writing an obituary and holding a funeral—“considering” being a verb I’d grown very fond of because it requires no real action at all –I thought I caught a glimpse of my self-discipline, in the same way people think they see Elvis at K-Mart.

Only instead of wandering the aisles of the Big K, I was strolling the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  I hadn’t seen it in so long that I barely recognized it when it washed ashore, but when I carried it up to my hotel room and sat down to write, I knew my old companion was back.  We spent a glorious weekend together, my long-lost love and I, and I drove home with two new chapters, an outline, and a big smile on my face.

If you’ve ever tried to patch up an old relationship, you know it ain’t always easy.

We struggled at first and were all fits and starts until I started to behave a little bit more like someone who was ready to commit.  The minute I did that, my self-discipline began to talk about wanting to move back in with me.  As a sign of our renewed partnership, we went shopping last week and bought a place where my book can live happily while I finish it.   And we started putting dates on the calendar together, a very big step for any couple.

With plenty of light and room to grow, I’m pretty sure my book will be very happy here for the next few months.

My self-discipline and I faced our first big hurdle on Friday, at the pool of all places.  I went there to do a 7,500 yard challenge swim (75 yards repeated 100 times) that my Masters team had completed on New Year’s Day, when I was out of town.

Swimming four miles in a pool is not much fun, even when a bunch of your friends are right in the lane with you.  Last Friday, recreational types who were doing more floating than swimming filled most of the lanes, so I knew I’d have only my self-discipline to keep me company.

The true test of any relationship is what happens when it’s just the two of you.  I knew we’d get through the first hour just fine, since we manage 60-minute swims together all the time, but the prospect of the second hour scared me.  Without my teammates around to keep me accountable, I could hop out of the pool and quit at any moment, and only I would know that I hadn’t finished.

The first hour went as easily as expected, but the second one was a major ordeal.

It was full of negotiations (“Do I have to swim this whole thing freestyle?”), tantrums (“I’m an adult, dammit! No one can force me to do this!”), and near-surrenders (“Six thousand yards is perfectly respectable.”).

But in any healthy relationship, making compromises without giving up who you are is exactly what moves the team forward and makes it stronger.

So I sprinkled in some backstroke, I did a few kick sets, and I made occasional use of a pull buoy.  Two hours and three minutes after we’d started, my self-discipline and I reached the 7,500 yard mark together.  We’re back, and we’re better than ever.

 

More of the Write Stuff

Yesterday’s post found me and Philippa verbally flailing around as we fielded questions from Paulette Beete, poet(ess?) extraordinaire and professional interviewer. Philippa and I sort of forgot the professional interviewer part when we asked Paulette to do this.  We won’t make that mistake again.  You can find my first set of answers here, and Philippa’s here. Now put on a seatbelt, ’cause the rest of this ride might be bumpy.

What’s your bio–if you had to deliver it as a performance art piece?

I’m at a swim meet, preparing to race in the 100 meter fly.  I’m seeded in the second-to-last heat, in Lane 4, which means I missed racing against the very fastest by just one spot.  One hundred yards of fly is at the outer limits of my stamina.  I know I’ll complete it, but I worry about finishing well.   Maybe because a good finish is on my mind when the starter says, “Take your mark,” I dive in before the buzzer sounds.  False start.  A second one means I’m out of the race.  I know I have to be careful the second time, but I have to take a bit of a risk if I’m to come out ahead.  At the sound of the buzzer, my legs launch me off of the blocks and I plunge, fast, into the water. My entry is so fast it knocks off my goggles.  But I keep going.  At 75 meters, fatigue has set in.  I have leaden arms, concrete feet, and a goggles necklace.  But I’m still going.  I do a little bit of competitive sightseeing and am pretty sure that the woman in Lane 6 –the slowest spot in the seeding—has edged past me. (I can’t be entirely certain, since my goggles are providing clear vision to my neck instead of my eyeballs.)  I have to try to catch her.  At 97 yards, I find a burst of adrenaline and finish strong.  I can’t tell if I won, but I can see that my time set a personal record.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and how does it apply to your writing life?

The best advice I’ve ever gotten was: Don’t push the rope.  Meaning, don’t try to control that which you can’t, and have a little patience.  The friend who imparted this advice to me was referring to my love life (where I’ve taken his advice a step further and let go of the rope altogether), but it applies very directly to my writing life.  Write because you love it and because you have a story to tell. Write for yourself, without regard for whether anyone wants to read it.  Write your story well, and then see where it takes you.  The fact that I get lost all the time probably means that I let my story do the navigating a little too often, but that’s okay.

You work a lot with humor. How did you arrive at that particular style of writing?

Pretty much all roads led me to humor writing.  First, I’ve been a klutz ever since I can remember. My clumsiness made me really self-conscious until two things dawned on me: 1) Hardly anyone noticed because, though I should have been the center of everyone’s universe, I wasn’t;  and 2) When people did notice, laughing with them instead of feeling frustrated with myself changed the interaction. It went from alienation to connection.  Second, I love to laugh not just at myself but at life in general.  It relieves stress and, at least for me, is a tremendous coping mechanism.  Third, I spent an appalling amount of time watching 1980s sitcoms, most of them God-awful (Benson, anyone?), leading me to believe that life came with a laughtrack. That belief died right after Santa and the Easter Bunny.  I accepted the death of those last two but was less ready to let go of one-liners and constant laughter so I turned to humor writing.

What can you achieve writing with pronounced humor that you might not be able to achieve otherwise?

Poop jokes.  On a more serious note, humor offers an unparalleled opportunity to shift your own, and perhaps others’, perspective on what might otherwise be a serious situation.  For example, very little about my divorce was objectively humorous (except for when the prospective buyers of the new house backed into and decapitated the $400 mailbox my ex-husband had insisted on, a feat I’d accomplished myself just two months earlier), but I looked for humor everywhere I could find it. And there was plenty of it, as there is in most situations if you seek it out.

What’s your ideal writing space? And where do you actually write?

My ideal space is the oceanfront balcony of Room 309 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk North Carolina. Oh wait, was I not supposed to be that specific?  The truth is I will write absolutely anywhere: in airports, on a break at work, at my aunt’s house, on the train, and even while I swim.  Though I can’t put the ideas on paper in the pool, I hatch and nurture them underwater all the time.  The writing spot I frequent most is the little white love seat in my family room. It’s where my favorite blankie lives.

Who’s your pie-in-the-sky dream collaborator and what project would you work on together?

I would love to collaborate with Gene Weingarten on anything, even the Tax Code.  Especially the Tax Code, now that I think about it.

 

 

 

The Write Stuff

Philippa and I have lots of writing friends, including the fabulous Paulette Beete.  Paulette can write the pants off of some prose, but she really shines when she writes poetry. In fact, her poetry is so good that people ask her to read it in public. It works in reverse for me: I have to make public pleas to get people to read my writing.  Anyway, a few months ago Paulette invited some of her writing buddies to interview her. Philippa and I jumped at the chance, and Paulette published her responses on her blog. This week, we decided to return the favor by having Paulette interview us.  This is part one of a two-part interview in which we field the same questions and go off in all kinds of different directions, not unlike our radio show (which will be back…soon!).

What’s the first time you remember engaging with a piece of writing in a meaningful way?

I’ve always loved to read, and I loved the books that introduced me to memorable characters, like Holden Caufield, or transported me to places I couldn’t wait to visit, like James Herriott’s beloved English countryside.  But it wasn’t until ninth grade English that a piece of writing really resonated with me.  It wasn’t The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, or any of the classics Mrs. Duffy had assigned us.  It was “Bang The Tupperware Slowly,” an essay from Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits.  Never before had a piece of writing made me laugh, hard, from beginning to end.  If you can write something that makes a person burst out laughing over and over again, you’ve really done something.  I knew right then that I wanted to do that something.

Several months ago, we all participated in a book swap where we gave someone our favorite book. If you had to do the same thing, and couldn’t use the same book, which book would you swap and why?

I would bring White Teeth by Zadie Smith because it not only entertained and moved me, but it also helped my writing (good reading being critical to good writing, of course).  Smith draws characters so vividly that you become attached to them in the very first chapter.  You find yourself hoping you’ll bump into them at the bus stop.  And then you remember you live in Northern Virginia, not London, and you’re more of a car and Metro person.  But still.  She exercises impeccable judgment when it comes to language use.  She doesn’t shortchange the reader on details, but she doesn’t give us so many that it slows down the story or takes our imagination out of the transaction.  Her writing also reminds us that we should always let our voice shine through.  Unless you’re Gilbert Gottfried or The Nanny.

Why do you write?

Because I’m riveting and hilarious and people should want to read me. Was this a trick question?

Why do you read? And what do you read? And what should you read but you just haven’t gotten to it yet?

I read because I enjoy it, but also because it makes me a better, more careful writer. Since my reading time is so limited, I try to consume only good stuff, like just about anything by Nick Hornby or David Sedaris.  But even when I come across bad stuff, it helps my writing by making me ask: What doesn’t work and why doesn’t it? And then, can it be fixed?  (Answer: Yes. Throw in a bunch of bondage scenes, call it Fifty Shades of [Noun], and you’re set.)

As for what I should read but haven’t yet, my mom was a librarian so I may have to go into the Reader Protection Program once I post this: I have never finished anything by Ernest Hemingway. Ernie has been on my list since Mrs. Duffy put him there in 1985, and we didn’t get along at all.  But at some point I’ll give him a second chance, as I so often do with dudes.

You’re both working on long-form projects in addition to blogging. Can you please share a little about your book projects, and also talk about if and how your short-form and long-form projects inform each other?

Ah, the dreaded elevator speech. I thought I could dodge it by just taking the stairs.  My book is a compilation of humor essays that loosely chronicle my life from 2002 (when I bought my first house) to 2012 (when, after having demolished and rebuilt the house, my ex-husband and I sold it).  As you might guess, the house is both a character and a metaphor.  Structure and style-wise, this book is somewhat similar to David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Though I hear many voices in my head, I use only one in my writing, so my blog and book sound largely the same.  The blog, which I began on a lark, has been hugely helpful as I write the book.  For me, blogging is like going to the gym.  Though I dread it sometimes, I do it regularly, I sweat, I feel better afterwards, and it increases my fitness for the longer stuff.  And I figure if I go to the gym a lot and work really hard while I’m there, maybe more people will check me out. (Wow, if I don’t stop this analogy now, it just might kill again.)

Tune in again tomorrow for Part Two: Paulette Strikes Back! 

Philippa and I road-tripped to Baltimore and hunkered down at a coffee shop to tackle Paulette’s hard-hitting questions. And some green tea. Lots of green tea.

You’ve come a long way, Baby.

I view beaches much in the same way I do wine: I’ll take anything I’m offered and accept it with gratitude, but I definitely have strong preferences.

I like a beach that isn’t overly commercial and doesn’t have a boardwalk.  And I want it to have real, pounding surf that doesn’t care what it looks like when it lands, not those tidy little waves that are so prissy and timid they practically ask for permission to come ashore.

Just how I like it: Foamy, frothy and wild.

I owe my taste in beaches to my family’s summer vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  We spent a week there every summer when I was a kid, starting when I was five or six.  In those days, the Banks were pretty darned rustic.  The beach provided our entertainment, and it was more than enough.

During the day, we rode the waves in inner tubes, bodysurfed, and made sand castles.  At night, we strolled the sand with a flashlight and a net to catch the crabs that sometimes rolled in with the tide.  And we’d go to bed to the sound of those messy, roaring waves.  We loved it there, and it’s always felt like home to me.

When I decided to go away to write this weekend, I headed straight for the Banks.

For maximum inspirational effect, I splurged and booked an oceanfront room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk.   That felt a little strange to me because, when I was a kid, Kitty Hawk didn’t even have a chain hotel, much less a five-story one. Not that we’d ever have stayed in a place like that, anyway.  A friend of my father’s owned a beach house in the Outer Banks and that’s where we tended to spend our vacations.

Actually, let me back up, because “house” is a bit of an overstatement.

The Beach Baby, as the house was known, began her life as a two-car garage that belonged to the home next door. Cars, like people, were skinnier back then, so this garage wasn’t one of those 22 foot-wide jobs that you see today. Nor did it have extra space for bikes, or woodworking, or any other garage frivolities.  It was built for one purpose: to house two cars.

Eventually, someone whose real estate vision was at least 20/20 came along and saw that it would make great sense to convert the oceanfront garage into an oceanfront house.  This person understood that some changes would be needed to make the structure habitable, seeing as how people’s and cars’ needs for indoor plumbing sometimes differ.

He started by adding a full bathroom.  That’s also where he stopped, because there was no need to go off on some crazy square footage binge.

Into the two-car garage with a bathroom, the visionary then packed a fridge, a small counter and four-burner stove, a table and chairs, a set of bunk beds, two twin beds, a full bed, and a dresser.

If you’re trying to picture the sleeping configuration and asking yourself how in the world all five beds fit into the space of a one-car garage, the answer is: they didn’t.  The full bed was in the kitchen.

This offered a certain convenience, especially for the kind of person who wakes up at 2 a.m. craving yesterday’s potato salad but doesn’t feel like leaving the bed to get it.

The full bed also boasted a short commute to the bathroom, though you couldn’t get there just by sitting up.  You had to walk up a couple of steps near the foot of the bed.  Those steps weren’t placed there for aesthetic effect, they were a necessity so the bathroom door could be opened without smacking into the kitchen bed.

(Before you get too impressed by the way the Beach Baby raised the efficiency concept to new heights, I have to tell you she was a real inefficiency, time-wise.  With six people and only one bathroom, someone had to be showering at every waking moment if we had any hopes of going out to dinner before midnight. The people-to-bathroom ratio also meant that bodily functions weren’t mandates so much as requests that you did your best to honor, assuming you could find a four-minute window when someone wasn’t in the shower.)

What the Beach Baby lacked in amenities she made up for with location: she sat right smack dab on the beach.  If you stepped out the back door, you were standing on sand, and high tide was never more than a few yards away.

We weren’t the only ones who loved the Beach Baby’s location. Mother Nature did, too. She’s quite the real estate visionary herself, and she had big plans for the Beach Baby.

When hurricane season was in full swing one year in the mid-eighties, Mother Nature took the garage-turned-house and turned it into a fully furnished raft.  Though technically gone, the Beach Baby still lives on in our memories…and who knows where else.