Friday, July 29, 2011

The Candy Box Time Machine

            A few years back, my older sister gave me an old candy box. Across the top the words Gobelin Chocolates, share space with an illustration of three pieces of candy, one cross-sectioned to reveal a pink core. At the bottom of the faded and chipped yellow and blue box are the words 
            "What?" I asked with my eyebrows.
            "Love letters. From our father to our mother."
            The second question, also verbally unasked was why? Why are you giving them to me now? What am I supposed to do with them? He didn't talk dirty in them, did he?
            Recently, during my bi-decadal swamping out of my basement office, pool room and guy cave, I spotted the box on a bookshelf. Needing a break from cleaning (I'd spent a grueling ten minutes already), I pried off the lid and examined at a collection of envelopes, sent to my mother in the late fall and early winter of 1942 and 43.
            To read, or not to read?
            There are several good reasons I've held them in abeyance in the years since my sister dropped them on me.
            I can't get past the idea that, somehow, even though my mother died in 1983 and my father nearly ten years later, that I would be invading their privacy. My father wrote those letters for my mother's eyes only. Who am I, nearly seventy years later, to eavesdrop on a confidential correspondence?
            The second reason betrays the ego-centric tunnel vision of most human beings. Since I wasn't born until November 7, 1948, my parents, in my reality, didn't really exist prior to that time. Their life, as mine, didn't begin until that day. Oh, sure, I knew that all six of my older brothers and sisters were products of my widowed father's first marriage and my mother's earlier, unsuccessful relationship, but those were abstract concepts. The Carroll and Jo Eleanor Nettleton I knew were an older couple (I came along very late in their lives. Probably not a poster child for successful contraception), who worked hard at a variety of low-paying jobs,  were involved in their community, taught me life lessons by example, and supported me in everything I did or attempted to do. They were not, by any stretch of my young imagination, two people who'd carried on a love affair, either via mail or face to face, six years before my birth. No how, no way. Even now, at 62, the same age my father was when I started high school, the perception is hard to shake. Your mom and dad, for crying out loud, were never people. They were your parents. A totally different genus and species.
            Except here was the evidence, in a box that was once packed with sweet confections from a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
            I slid off the lid and drew the first envelope, dated November 2, 1942 out. Using my thumb and forefinger, I plucked out a single sheet, filled on one side with my father's small, neat hand, and began reading.
            Darling, Jo: it began. Over a period of several days I read most of the letters. Much of it was a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of two people, during the difficult days of World War 2, trying to come to grips with their feelings for one another and the complications caused by my mother's rapidly disintegrating common-law marriage. I was struck by the depth of my father's love for my mother and the heartfelt expression of his ache for her. He used fanciful words, (all G-rated, thank you very much) that I would have never guessed were in his vocabulary.
            I'm glad I read the letters, even though the mere mention of them still makes my eyes go moist. It brings my folks, gone these many years, back into sharp focus. It's almost like a blank silhouette of them has been suddenly filled with color and light and fully animated. They lived, they loved, they did the best they could. It's all any of us can hope for.

Thanks, sis.

Goblin Chocolates

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Existential Highwayism

I came within inches of being involved in a nasty wreck Saturday night. Had it not been for driving the speed limit, my habitual use of side mirrors, good reflexes and even better brakes on my 06 Prius, I d have found myself scrunched against the guard rail of the southbound Marquam Bridge
      Like all traffic accidents or near misses, this one seemed to develop in a split second. A glimmer in the passenger's side mirror made me swivel in time to see a green SUV bearing down on me from three lanes over. I fought the impulse to crush the brake pedal, which would have sent me into a death spiral and make me a target for every car behind me. Instead, I let up on the gas, put heavy but steady pressure on the brakes and said a dirty word  As I slewed toward the guard rail, the SUV was on top of me in a nanosecond. Luckily, the driver chose to accelerate at the same time I slowed and his rear end cleared my front fender by something approximating width of his walnut-sized brain.
       Notice I used the words his rear end. Unfair, since there was no way of gauging the sex of the reality-challenged yahoo behind the wheel of the SUV. I couldn't see the driver through the tinted windows. Besides, it's irrelevant. But I'll use he, for convenience sake in the rest of this blog.
      He sped away. I said another, much dirtier word and leaned on my horn. Several other drivers joined in venting with me.
       I reached Lovejoy Fountain, where I was performing for the final time in the Portland Actors Ensemble production of TheTempest without further incident.  As I prepared for the show's opening, I found myself wondering what the driver of that Utility Vehicle had been thinking when he made that multiple lane change and nearly hit me.
       Was he drunk? Texting a restaurant reservation in? Playing charades with the other occupants of the car? Was his thinking limited to the simple realization "I'm over here, I need to be over there?  Did the concept that there might be another car in the space he wanted to occupy even cross his mind? Did he think the other car (me) had a lot of nerve being there.
       How about the aftermath of the inches-from-disaster incident. Did he realize how close he came to causing a freeway tangling multiple vehicle crash? What did he think the hallelujah chorus of car horns chasing him down the 405 was about? Did he try to laugh it off and try to rationalize it to his white-knuckled passengers?
       Living in an urban environment and driving in the worst examples of Portland's gridlocked morning and afternoon traffic for 16 years, I've witnessed numerous incidents of what my wife calls "Existential Highwayism."
       People back out of driveways into the flow of a busy four-lane street without looking, taking it on faith that the other drivers will stop for them. Texting pedestrians step off a curb and into the path of onrushing vehicles without glancing up. "I'm in a huge hurry" types tailgate at eighty miles per hour while checking their voice mail.
       Let's be honest. All of us, at one time or another has let our attention waver and have caused or nearly caused an accident. But the lack of focus behind the wheel seems to have grown to epidemic proportions.
      Blame technology. With all of the distractions built into today's lifestyles, we've become a society that believes it's own hype about multi-tasking. Focusing on one thing and performing it to the best of our abilities is "so day before yesterday." This would not only explain the actions of the driver who nearly T-boned me, but the driver I saw playing a ukulele and reading the funnies at a stop sign the other morning.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Coping with Rejection

(Honesty/Laziness Alert. This blog ran a year ago on Melanie Sherman’s blog, http://melaniesherman.blogspot.com/ If you haven’t been there, visit soon and treat yourself to a laugh.)

 It’s as much a part of my writing life as carpal tunnel syndrome, brain cramps, and a butt that looks best in a bathrobe.

Being rejected cuts as deep as not being asked to the prom or being stood up on your wedding day. (Although, for the record, I had a darn good time not going to the prom, and have been guilty once or twice—in the midst of a discussion that wasn’t going my way—of wishing there’d been nobody waiting at the end of that aisle.)
Just as there are stages of grief, there are also stages of rejection—in fact, the first few stages are almost identical.
Shock and Denial. Check. I find myself staring at a rejection notice confident that if I look long enough I’ll see someone else’s name at the top or that the “not” will disappear and I’ll see that an agent is “interested.”
Pain and Guilt. Check. I feel I failed my story by not saying the right things in that query letter, by not writing a better first sentence for the first chapter, or by not being worthy to tell the tale.
Anger and Bargaining. Been there, done that. I’m guilty of crumpling rejections and hurling them against walls, and guilty of promising to drive within the speed limit, be nicer to those with too many items in the express line, and eat more fruit and vegetables if only . . .
Depression and loneliness. Oh yeah. Writing can be a lonely experience at the best of times, and loneliness can be a slippery slope into the depths of What’s the Point? Canyon.
So, unless you’re one of those rare writers who lands a publisher with the first toss of the query net, you might want to have a coping strategy—or several coping strategies—to get you through these early stages of rejection. And you might want to be aware of the potential cost of each course of action.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve employed in the past and the benefits and drawbacks I’ve discovered:
          Imagining that agents are the dirt beneath the beater bar, I charge around the house sucking them up. On the plus side, I discover the carpet has a pattern. On the minus side, I pinch a nerve in my shoulder and wear out the carpet attachment. Dirt returns and brings along its close friends, dust and pet dander. I put away the vacuum and start
          Taking long walks
Going with the theory that a tired writer is a less angry writer, I set out to see my neighborhood. I raise my metabolic rate, strengthen my heart, and lose a few pounds. But I develop planters fasciitis, suffer excruciating pain in my heels, and have to fork out $400 for special orthotic devices that make it feel like I’m standing on a pipe. I give up walking in favor of
Water Aerobics
Telling myself that others will suffer more from the sight of me in a bathing suit than I do, I hit the pool six days a week, strap on a flotation belt, and start building something I never knew I had—core muscles. Within two weeks, I’m doing the cross-country ski maneuver and tuck jumping jacks with the best of them. Within three weeks I develop dry skin, split fingernails, and things on my neck that look a lot like gills. I cut back on water aerobics and substitute
Pretending that weeds are agents, I uproot them by the dozen and trim back shrubs with a vengeance. The lack of weeds and overhanging branches reveals numerous bare places. I spend a small fortune on bulbs and plantings to fill them. My dog eats several and digs up more. Others are attacked by grubs and bugs devour most of the rest. I retreat to the deck and the strategy of
          Catching up on the TBR pile
I inhale some great literature and feel energized, then come across some not-so-great literature and contemplate unfairness of life. Feeling  sorry for myself once more, I resort to
          Whining to friends
On the first day I collect 10 “poor baby” responses. On day two, I rake in 6 “poor babies” and 4 “I’ve got a call on the other line.” On day three I get two “poor babies” and 8 message machines. On day 4, no one answers. With one foot sliding down that slippery slope I mentioned earlier, I sulk to the bottle-filled cabinet in the buffet and begin on my new strategy of
          Indulging in chilled adult beverages
Determined to numb myself to the pain of rejection, I drink too fast and get a stabbing headache. After self-medicating to treat that headache, I wake up the next day experiencing hangover Armageddon. Furious at myself, I hit on a new strategy
          Writing another novel
          “I’ll show them,” I chortle. “They haven’t seen the last of me. I will learn more about plotting, characterization, scene structure, subtext, and backstory. I will never quit. I will never give up. They’ll have to pry this keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.” Finally, a strategy that combines time-consuming, distracting reaction to failure with time-consuming, distracting forward action.

To my surprise I found that, for the wrong reasons (spite and revenge), I did the right thing—burned off the negative energy and faced up to the realities of writing for publication. The next step was to accept those realities and the fact that I couldn’t change them. That enabled me to move on, to reconstruct myself, to practice discipline, to nurture others. Over the years, I published a number of mysteries through small presses and recently landed a contract with Five Star for Hemlock Lake.
Reviews so far have been positive and with each one I tell myself, “You wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t stopped arguing, avoiding, indulging, and whining.”
Like writing itself, I found coping with rejection was a journey during which I learned much about myself. I’m not the same person I was when I got my first rejection slip. I think that’s a good thing. I think my friends—who now take my calls again—would agree.