Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Makes the Macho Guy Cry?

Six months ago I sat down and banged out an essay about my grandmother. It came easily in an hour or two, the fluid culmination of thoughts I’d had since her death nine years ago. Horizon Air picked it up and ran it in their January issue. I could not have predicted the response.

Total strangers have googled and emailed me. My writing has been called “exquisite” and “simply beautiful”. One admirer said he used a line from my essay as his personal quote of the day. A young woman revealed that she’d found guidance for her struggles and dreams following the death of her father in my words.

My favorite comment was from a self-professed “macho guy” who recalled his experience while reading the essay on the airplane: “I'm sure the lady sitting next to me was wondering, "What is this 6' 4" guy doing with tears running down his cheeks?””

This sort of thing has only happened to me once before, with an essay I wrote about the Vietnam War. In neither instance did I premeditate a surefire ticket to readers’ hearts. In a way, I suppose, I always hope to do so, but what I mean is that with these two pieces there was no particular point at which I thought, oh yeah, this will get them.

I am trying to allow this experience to remind me that writing is a mysterious beast, and that you never know what will make the macho guy cry or give the young woman insight into her own soul. The fact that you don’t know is precisely why you should simply keep putting words out there; honestly, experimentally, fearlessly.

(PS The essay in question can be read on my website under Chef's Special)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy New You! Part II

In the course of a weekend, Chicken Noodle turned four and Chicken Little turned two.

After wiping up the frosting and recycling the wrapping, I realized I have somehow become the elated mother of two gorgeous girls who drink milk from cups, walk on their own and sleep through the night.
I simultaneously feel my life expanding once more to truly include writing.

My only regret is that I never really learned to trust the temporariness of the trapped-under-a-baby stage; that I lacked faith that writing wouldn't feel like forcing gelatinous sludge through a paper pinpoint for the rest of my life. If I had worked frantically, fuzzy-headedly through fewer naptimes, would it have mattered?

Perhaps: perhaps not. There is something to keeping the wheels greased, and something to recognizing all you're good for is Vanity Fair (reading it, not writing it).

It’s not too late for a lesson to be learned. In nineteen months, Chicken Noodle will start kindergarten. Until then, I will fight to tend to my writing and mothering lives with equal parts passion and patience.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


“Blogs are dead.”

This statement of doom was uttered by one of my writing-group cohorts at a recent meeting, roughly two seconds after I announced that I had started one.

Naturally, blogs are dead. This is the story of my life—the thing I finally catch on to has already passed the cool kids by. By the time I’ve hyper-analyzed some new craze enough to decide that the novelty/challenge of it won’t kill me, that novelty is cold in the ground.

There is a reason I named this blog what I did.

Ah, well. So I will be the one to persist with dead trends. They can put this on my gravestone; “the fact that she'd missed the bus never stopped her from running determinedly after it”.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Voice in the Crowd

Last week I paused at the supermarket and selected Valentines for the chickens to distribute to their fellow preschoolers. After passing by innumerable boxes emblazoned with mainstream cartoon personalities (likely to please the chickens, but make me gag), I discovered cards emblazoned with fish—as you tipped the card around in your hand, the images moved and shifted.

Clever, I thought. I went home and packaged them up.

Three days later what came home were handfuls of these morphing-image cards--each obviously not one mother’s lofty balk to consumerism but simply this year’s hot item.

It got me thinking about how rare the truly original idea is.

I recently read a New Yorker article that commented on several simultaneous inventions throughout the course of history. Even before the collective thinking of the Internet, people were having the same thoughts at the same time at opposite points of the globe. Or take for example the phenomenon of baby naming—despite that most couples think they are innovative, every year lots of people name their kid the exact same name. (My name was, in fact, the third most popular in my birth year).

This goes for writing topics, too. Sometimes it seems I've had a story idea for all of two seconds before I see it in a magazine. And though I loathe the thought, there is probably someone out there right this very minute writing practically this same blog entry (whoa).

What can we rely on if our ideas are as likely to be in someone else’s head as ours alone? Who gets heard: he who hollers the loudest, she with the freshest angle?

I am banking on honesty and voice. Let’s see where that gets me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Writer's High

Yesterday I submitted three essays to magazines. Last week, I submitted another to a contest.

It’s amazing how after all of this time the submitting part of the writer’s equation still feels so great. Even though cognitively I know that the odds are stacked against me and that the most likely result is dreaded rejection, submitting still gives me a tiny little high.

This stems from the pride of having put something together, polished it and wrangled it into submitting status; from the satisfaction of having searched for magazines/websites/anthologies who publish essays like the ones I write, read through their submission requirements and dutifully obeyed.

But the kicker is that at the point that I stick my words in the mailbox or hit the send key on an email, anything is possible. I have prepared and I have entered the race; that alone is enough to make me feel alive. The results are delightfully unknown; success seems as likely as failure. It is the thrill of this possibility that gives the high.

What if? What if the New York Times published my essay? How outstanding would that feel?

Yes, I know that there are 10,000 entries a week; it doesn’t matter, for this very moment, before the days start to tick by with no response, before the finality of a rejection shows up in my inbox, winning is still possible.

That possibility is hope and hope is the primary reason we keep doing anything at all.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Me, Justified

“Explain yourself,” my step-father intoned from the driver’s seat as we traveled to the north shore of Oahu. “Justify your existence!”

He snickered wickedly. This is his idea of small talk.

JB is cursed with an existential preoccupation. He takes stock of life regularly—his and everyone else’s. What have we accomplished? What will we leave behind? And, after all that, are we happy? Have we learned to let go, figured out what matters, mastered a pitch-perfect balance of meaning, occupation and pleasure?

I have this same problem. That’s why we get along so well.

Of course he was only joking about me justifying my existence in a 25-minute car ride. Sort of.

He giggled with delight. “Well?”
The problem with hard work is that I’ve never felt like it was the only way to go.

I’ve done a lot of writing in the past decade but not 10,000 hours worth because I’ve filled half of those hours with other things—hiking and skiing and camping and reading a novel in the sunshine and learning to play the guitar and napping and loving and running and making money and raising babies and, finally last week, a little surfing.

I’ve never wanted to spend all of my life working, and I never have.

Perhaps at some point justifying my existence will mean learning not to apologize—not for unachieved successes, but for what was compromised for the sake of happiness.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thanks, Fred

The good news: I did not make a total arse of myself during my first-ever surfing lesson.

The bad news: It was nonetheless clear that I will not be mastering that sport in this lifetime.

Aside from forcing my ridiculously nervous self down to Waikiki and forking out $40 to fling myself into the ocean with only a really huge board tied to my ankle to save me, I managed to read the entirety of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” on vacation. He has many fascinating things to say about success, mostly converging on the themes of luck and hard work.

The good news and the bad news: Luck I can’t do much about. Hard work is entirely up to me.

Gladwell describes the 10,000 hour rule, which declares that mastery of anything can be achieved with the investment of 10,000 hours of good old-fashioned hard work. This implies that, were I to move nearer the ocean and continue to wade into it daily for the next decade or two, I could potentially still become a pretty decent surfer.

However, as I hauled the board up onto the sand three days ago, arms shaking from the effort of one hour’s worth of learning something altogether new, it occurred to me that I am already well on my way to those 10,000 spent writing, and perhaps it is just common sense to apply myself where I have a solid head start.

The very best part? I had expected some local surfer dude as my instructor: young, muscled, long-haired and full of himself. Instead I got Fred: local, all right—as well as scrawny, balding and 68 years old. I LOVED Fred. Fred was patient. Fred called me sweetheart. Fred had me riding waves within 25 minutes.

Fred has been surfing for 60 years. He is the embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule. As a surfer, he is beyond competent, delighted to be out there, and happy to share his knowledge.

My new goal: when I am 68, to be the Fred of writing.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Mama Goes Hawaiian

Brief status update from Hawaii, where our protagonist has traveled to her mother's house with her eldest child for a bit of R&R.

Interest in creating pithy, fabulously interesting blog post: very low

Interest in staring stupidly into the tropical middle distance: very high

Favorite part of this vacation so far: phoning home and finding that the chickens are most interested in talking only to each other. They report on their experiences, whilst apart.

"Hi Boo Boo!" trills Chicken Noodle. "I love you! I had shave ice. Grandma bought me a fairy. Mommy fell off the surfboard. I miss you Boo Boo!"

"Hi. Sis." says Chicken Little in her adorable halting 23-month-old way. "Hot. Tub. Ducky. Slide. Home."

Tomorrow: The chills! The spills! The humiliation! My first ever surfing lesson.