Sunday, August 29, 2021

We were at a wedding and then there was a funeral

but I didn't go to the funeral. I was still replaying the wedding. Something interesting about my extended family is how we can't all be together for very long without falling apart. Maybe every family is like this. Throw everyone together in a room, add the heightened emotions that go along with weddings (and funerals) and there's bound to be some drama. 

I don't want to write about this drama except for how I learned to cope with it. How I had coped with it in the past was the replaying thing, 

going over every detail of whatever happened in my mind, rehashing it with other people, usually the people who were involved, which all just made it worse, and generally making the people closest to me miserable with the ad nauseum rehashing. I knew I was going to have to stop, so I went back into therapy. 

Something nice about therapy is that you can rehash to your heart's content and the person listening to you has to listen to you because you're paying them, and there's a helpful bonus in the fact that they aren't involved in the drama and can see the idiocy of it all and let you rage and cry forever. Except it's not forever, because therapy sessions only last for an hour. 

I learned some useful tips and tricks when I was going to therapy, like how to notice patterns in relationships and break them (the patterns, not the relationships, although sometimes you have to break those occasionally too) and how to set boundaries and how to let things go that you can't control. 

But the summer of the wedding (and the funeral I didn't go to) the tips and tricks weren't working. Or maybe they were sort of working with my extended family but they weren't working with other things. For example, the world. 

This was sixteen years ago and Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans and I had been watching the news for days and feeling sick about it, the water rising and the people trapped in the convention center and the dead grandmothers left behind on the street corners with notes pinned to their clothes, the stories of white supremacists with guns on bridges threatening the desperate people trying to flee and the doctors in dark sweltering hospitals helping sick people die, the terrified people cutting their way through their rooftops and the president praising the head of FEMA for doing such a great job, other countries around the world looking on in horror at one of our major cities collapsing and promising to send foreign aid to us, 

and I was rehashing all of this with my therapist, raging about it, crying. Maybe it was the residual feelings about the wedding and the funeral. A person had died and I had loved him and I didn't go to his funeral, but it was something more than that, something I couldn't verbalize about families and dysfunction, 

and the word isn't drama, it's tragedy, 

how people who love each other hurt each other over and over again, my family, our country, the world. I didn't know what the therapist was going to say. He usually had all the answers, or at least some advice, a tool I could use, a mantra. Did you see the people wading through the water, I said. This is our country. How is this happening in our country? 

I don't know, he said. He seemed a little flustered by the question. I was flustered that he didn't have the answer. The session was over and I walked out in a daze. I was on the verge of understanding something but I couldn't quite reach it. I barely understand it now. 

It's me, it's you, it's us, each one of us on our own, and at the same time, all of us inextricably connected. What will it take to get us into the room together and keep us there as the world falls apart? 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

At night in the fog

Pre-Covid, when I used to teach writing classes, I liked to include inspiring quotes on my powerpoint slides. The burning question aspiring writers always have is How do I get my book published? But the second question (which, really really really should be the first, I know) is How do I write a book?

There is an actual answer to this question: 

You write it.

But I knew that sounded snippy and dismissive and I was trying to be inspiring. Hence, the quotes: 

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ― E.L. Doctorow 

Just take it bird by bird. ― Anne Lamott 

The fog one is a nice metaphor because you can picture it when you're at that vague What the hell is going to happen next? stage of your novel, (which, honestly, may be the entire time you're writing it). There's the murkiness in front of the car, and how do you even know the road is still there?

But then, just when you feel like you might hurtle off a cliff, the road appears. Maybe you see a flash of a traffic sign or a tree rising out of the murkiness. Every so often, something bright. The lights from a passing car. The moon poking out behind the clouds. 

The bird quote is the one that usually gets a laugh from the audience. It's from Anne Lamott's extremely helpful writing craft book Bird by Bird, which she starts by telling the story of her younger brother who'd put off a school project until the last minute. The project was something overwhelming like, WRITE A DESCRIPTION OF EVERY BIRD IN THE WORLD. The night before the project was due, the little brother was crying at the kitchen table, his head bowed over his stack of blank pages.

The father came by and patted him on the shoulders and said, "Just take it bird by bird, buddy." 

This was the part in the presentation when I would say: The secret to writing a book is BIC. Put your Butt In the Chair. And I would tell them about the importance of daily word count goals or setting a timer.  And then I'd go into the actual mechanics. How to build a scene and how to add conflict and tension and tips on how to revise. 

But then they'd want to go back to what they really needed to know, which is how to find an agent and what's the secret to getting a movie deal. 

Maybe it's human nature to want to skip over the hard parts, the actual work, to speed through the dark and get home safely and find your award-winning, best-selling novel on the library and bookstore shelves. I know I am mixing metaphors mightily, but maybe we have to stop focusing so hard on the end. 

We are here, 

after all, right now, this moment, fires and viruses burning around us, hurricanes bearing down, the world some days, most days, seemingly spinning out of control. How do we write--how do we live--in the face of all of that? 

Robert Frost famously said, The only way out is through. 

But I wish I could ask him, What if there is no way out? What if there is only Through? And through and through and through. Then, where does that leave us? How do we sit with it, the day's words, an individual bird on a page or singing in the trees, hands gripping our steering wheels as we wait for the road to reveal itself. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Read Watch Grow

This was an awful week. For me. For the country. For the planet. And I don't want to talk about it or think about it or write about it.

Instead, I read a really good book and watched a really good TV show and sat on my front porch a lot and admired the flowers in my hellstrip garden bobbing in the breeze, people strolling past, and occasionally, a dog lifting its leg to pee on the marigolds. I only winced a little. 

What I read: Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

This book caught my interest because it has a weird title and colorful cover and I like John Green books. Green explains in the first chapter that he used to review books for Booklist and then he goes off on a tangent about star ratings and how not-helpful they are. Also, people will rate everything these days. Someone rated a bench in Amsterdam, for example, because it was a prop in the movie The Fault in our Stars. They gave the bench 3 stars and said in the review, "It is a bench." 

Green explains that we're living in the Anthropocene Era, a time that is dominated by humans, and humans lately, aren't doing such a great job. (Green was writing this book at the beginning of the pandemic. He's an anxious person and one of his greatest fears used to be pandemics. At the beginning of the lockdown, which he thought would last a few weeks, he bought 60 cans of Diet Dr Pepper, his favorite drink, and told his brother Hank he was prepared. His brother laughed and said, "For someone who has spent four decades worrying about disease pandemics, you sure don't understand how disease pandemics work.")

The book is a collection of essays on random topics that Green reviews and rates. Canadian geese, the Indianapolis 500, CNN, Piggly Wiggly, Googling Strangers and Auld Lang Syne are just a few. Each essay is short, funny and sometimes not-so-funny, with Green's observations about people and the strange and awful and beautiful things we do. 

There's footnotes and fun facts. And one essay made me burst into tears and feel great love for humanity. I give John Green's Anthropocene Reviewed 5 stars. 

What I watched: Ted Lasso 

This did not seem like a TV show I would like. My daughter told me about it and she said, I know you're thinking you won't like it, Mom, but you will. She was right on both counts. The show is about an American football coach, Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, who gets hired to coach a British football (soccer) team. Ted knows nothing about British football. He's a genuinely nice guy who is in way over his head. Classic fish out of water tale. 

Whenever I read a book or watch a TV show or movie, my brain immediately goes into storytelling mode and I can see the structure behind it. How the characters and plot are set up. What the conflicts are going to be. How the whole thing will probably turn out. Ted Lasso seemed like an easy one. 

But I was wrong on basically everything, and wrong in ways that I love. We know, for example, that there's got to be a reason why Ted was hired to coach a sport he knows nothing about. The answer is clear in episode one. The team owner Rebecca Welton, played by Hannah Waddingham, is recently divorced and bitter. The team was her ex-husband's baby, but now it's hers. What better way to get revenge on the ex than to hire a ding-dong American to destroy what the ex loves? 

My brain immediately imagined the entire series from this point on. Ted would be eager to learn and help and Rebecca would thwart his every move, sabotaging all of his efforts and hurting the team. But this is NOT what happens. Only a few episodes in, I loved Rebecca, who's a much more complicated and multi-layered person than "bitter ex-wife." 

It's the same with all of the characters in this show and all in unexpected ways. Nice guy Ted has some demons, and not the ones you think. There's an arrogant soccer player, the groupie-ish model girlfriend, the old cranky soccer player who should retire but isn't ready to quit playing yet. All of these people turn out to be just as interesting as Ted and Rebecca. 

Now, I've just started watching season two, and have no idea what's going to happen to any of these people but I love it and I love them. I give Ted Lasso 5 stars. 

What I grew: 

Yellow squash and green beans and so many tomatoes that I can't make enough spaghetti sauce and salsas and caprese salads to keep up with them. Basil and ginger (a plant I bought at the farmer's market but now am unclear about when I should harvest it) and ditto, the fennel, which I have never grown before, but it looks so lovely and feathery that I'm not sure I want to pick it at all. 

Black-eyed Susans in the back flower beds and some mystery flower that I planted from seeds my father-in-law gave me, but now it's about to bloom and I had no idea what it was, exactly, that I had planted. A friend took a look and said Datura. Now that I think about it, my father-in-law called them moonflowers, which is one of the common names of Datura. Also, if you want to go down a fun rabbit hole into strange plants, take a look at the Datura entry on Wikipedia. 

(One example: "All species of Datura are poisonous and potentially psychoactive, especially their seeds and flowers, which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, fever, delirium, hallucinations, anticholinergic syndrome, psychosis, and even death if taken internally. Due to their effects and symptoms, they have occasionally been used not only as poisons, but also as hallucinogens by various groups throughout history.") 

Datura. It's gorgeous, but don't smoke it. Unless you want to die. 

Also, cleome and Mexican sunflowers in the hellstrip, the sunflowers now taller than I am and possibly breaking some city ordinance about how high things can grow in front of your house, but I don't care. The people walking by seem to enjoy them and God knows the dogs do.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Stinkhorns in the garden

Virus cases are rising and I have a weird smelly orange fungus growing in my backyard. First thing in the morning I head out into my herb garden how I always do and there it is, poking up between the oregano and the marigolds. It wasn't there yesterday. And now suddenly, boom! the size and shape of a carrot. But if the carrot was playing a part in a horror movie. 

We're back to wearing masks at work. Required for the employees, "recommended" for patrons. We used to say "Masks Appreciated." Do our patrons notice the change of wording? Someone has a fit at the desk, not about masks, but over our refusal to allow her to check out items on another person's library card. She raises her voice and calls someone on her phone and yells about how stupid the library is being. My co-worker talks her down. Crisis, for the moment, averted. But I have to leave the desk, compose myself in the circ room. 

Back in the garden I look up "weird smelly orange tuber fungus" on my phone and find this: 

If it smells like putrid, rotting meat, you're probably dealing with stinkhorn mushrooms.

It's not a big deal, according to the article, won't hurt your other plants or your pets. But you may want to close your windows... 

It does smell bad. Really bad. I am not exaggerating when I say that I feel personally and viscerally attacked by this thing. And what an unwelcome surprise. Only a few weeks ago my husband and I were on vacation with friends. We had one of the best meals of our lives, inside a restaurant, waited on by masked servers. After dinner one of them led us out onto the patio. 

I was so stuffed from the food, I couldn't even think about dessert, but the waitress talked me into an after dinner drink. It tasted like a toasted almond bar. Twinkly lights hung in the trees around the patio. We admired stone hand chairs in the nearby garden. Clinked glasses and dug into the same dessert plates. Maybe we had passed the worst of it, we said to each other. Maybe we made it through to the other side of this plague unscathed. 

The plexiglass partitions came down from around the library desks. At the grocery store you could walk in any direction you wanted in the aisles. But then, just like that, boom! The virus cases in the state doubled. Tripled. Cars line up outside the emergency room drop off as I drive past the hospital on my way to work. 

I'm writing another rom-com, even though I feel the opposite of rom-my and com-my. Still, every day when I descend into the world I created, I can make myself smile. These people love each other, even if they don't know it yet. It's a zany place where they live and there are all kinds of seemingly unsurmountable problems, but nothing that can't be solved over the course of 75,000 words. 

I don't know what to do about the stinkhorn. The article says it may be beneficial to the garden soil. On the other hand, there's the putrid rotting meat smell that attracts flies. This is a no-brainer. I dig it up and bury it in the trash. 

*TRIGGER WARNING (you may not want to look at this stinkhorn)