A Bad Decision

“You Suck.”

That is not what she said, but that is what I felt.

I really thought I had a chance this time.  Only 25 people entered the contest.  I read all the other submissions.  Mine was by far the best.

Of course, mine was also the only one not about twenty-something sex and/or dating issues.

Mine was about making a bad career-path choice.

You know, mature, adult decision-making.

Perhaps that was an error.  Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the personality of the judge, a twenty-something social-media obsessed blogger who used to work for one of those awful online celebrity-dirt-rags.

And the winning piece was to go on Hairpin, a place for twenty-something girls to whine about bad sex and beauty products and mean boy/girlfriends.

Perhaps entering this contest was the bad decision I should have written about.

Learn to Play

English: An Atari 2600 four-switch "wood ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The kids are at school, the dishes done, and the laundry started.  She has no more excuses.  She must sit down on the floor, now, in front of the TV, now, turn on the XBox, now, and learn to play.

She hates video games.  She’s hated them all her life.  From the moment her parents gifted her brothers their first Atari console, she’s thought of video games as the worst waste of time.  There were so many more interesting things to do.  As a kid she was always outside, running and playing and riding bikes.  On rainy days, she liked to play house and school or games like trivia pursuit or do crossword puzzles.

It never mattered, before now, that she never got into gaming  the way her brothers did.  No one minded, before now, that she didn’t know the difference between a side-scroller, a first-person shooter or a role-playing game.

It mattered now.

Now she had kids, and her kids were gamers.

In her mind, in her world, a good parent was an involved parent.  A good parent went to every soccer game, attended every recital. A good parent knew what was in the books her children read, because she’d read them.  She knew the TV shows they liked because she watched with them.  She knew how to play the games they liked, because she’d played them.

This month, the favorite game is on the Xbox, and it is a side-scroller. The kids finished level three last night before bed, and when they get home from school they will start level four.  When they get stuck, they must turn to her for help, not the internet, not a friend, her.

She sits in front of the TV, turns on the XBox and logs into the game.  With her laptop beside her, open to a cheat website, she takes the controller in her hands and learns how to complete level four.

***

One Bite

The New Orleans "Picayune" mascot fr...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh how they stare. They know I don’t belong here, but they know why I’ve come.

A once in a lifetime trip. I’ve spent all of my savings and borrowed a fortune to get here. All for this one experience. This one event. This one meal.

The maître d’ leads me to a table and a waiter produces a chair from somewhere. I would have been fine standing but I am not surprised a galaxy-renowned establishment such as this can handle tourists.

The menu is extensive but I can’t read it. I don’t know any of the words. I look up at the waiter, helpless confusion on my face. He nods, takes the menu, and floats away.

I sit there and try to ignore the looks of the other patrons. They lounge on their hover chairs and mumble to each other. A family of three surround a table nearby.  I know what they are saying, although I can not hear the words.

“Why bother?” asks the son, “She’ll only eat two mouthfuls and then she’ll be full.”

“That poor skinny thing,” says the mother, “She looks like she’s starving. Don’t they have any food on her planet?”

“All they do is swallow nutro-pills, I wonder if she even knows how to chew,” the father responds.

Finally the waiter returns with a huge platter of food. The smells are overwhelming. I take the utensil, the one called a spoon, and hold it like I practiced. The waiter is floating at my elbow and I look up at him. He suggests I try the one he calls ‘spinachsouffle.’ I scoop a small amount onto my spoon and bring it to my mouth.

The combination of texture and flavor explodes on my tongue. It is, simply, orgasmic.

In that moment I know that all the expense, all the time, all the disdainful stares, all of it was worth it. And I would suffer through it again for the pleasure of that one bite.

A Composition on Composition

A Composition is a thing composed of various elements.

This post is a thing composed of definition and memory and an attempt to find balance.

First – definition:

See first sentence.

Second – memory:

Seventh grade english class: I am wearing my glasses because they are new. Before the week is out, I will lose them through a combination of negligence and embarrassment. ‘Four-Eyes’ is a commonly used phrase. Nerds are not cool yet.

While I can still see the board, I absorb the teacher’s lessons like a sponge. She is and always will be my favorite teacher. The repetitive boredom of summer sluffs off my sun-soaked brain and I leap into learning grammar and poetry and composition with the thrill of a diver on the high board.

The first composition assignment is written in purple ink at the top of my brand new homework notebook. The title of the composition is written in blue ink on the top of the first page of my brand new composition book. Over the weekend, the book bag containing both items sits ignored in the back-hall, while September skies pull me, briefly, back into summer.

Sunday night, at the dining room table, its varnished surface covered in the pressed pen-marks of two generations of homework-doers, my siblings and I struggle to finish what should have been done by now. The composition fails to live up to anyone’s expectations, including my own. On Monday the first C  is given and received, establishing the pattern of the year to follow.

Third – balance:

The word ‘composition’ always felt the way sour milk smells. Bad – off – wrong.  Back when writing was a chore, back when I didn’t know how to move thoughts from mind to paper. So hard back then, not so hard now. I’ve had a lot of practice since then.

The word ‘composition’ always related to words, a softer sort of essay, an alternative for the old-fashioned theme. But now it is reorienting itself in my brain. Expanding into new territory the way an amoeba moves a pseudopod to the next place it wants to go.

The word ‘composition’ now relates to art, my newest skill. Composition is what makes art interesting. A drawn banana is just as boring to look at on paper as it is to look at in real life. No matter how perfect the execution, a banana is a banana is a banana.

There are, as I am currently learning, eight elements of composition in art. One of which is balance. I learn that the balance of the elements of a piece can affect the mood. As in real life, when things are balanced, I am calm; when things are out of whack, I am a stressed out wacko.

Last – the composition:

At this moment, I am wearing my glasses. Perhaps the twentieth or so pair of my life. I can’t think of the last time I heard the phrase ‘four-eyes’ and nerds are cool now. Composition doesn’t turn my stomach any more. Composition takes the pieces of my abilities, my old skills and new skills, and sparks potential creative recombinations. The trick is finding the balance, holding on to the things that let me see what’s on the board, and not getting sucked into dull boredom of repetitivity.

I drank, I ate, I read, I wrote, I walked, I swam, I laughed. I did not cry (yet).

I drank coffee this morning, made from beans grown in a hot and rainy place, very far away from here.  I had to grind the beans in the ear-drum grating grinder under the terrified eyes, or ears, of my little niece who was not convinced that shoving the grinder inside an oven mitt and wrapping it all in a dish towel would make the sound any less offensive.  She was probably right, but I made an amazed face as I pushed the button and said, over the noise, “Wow! what a difference that makes!”  She is at that wonderful age where she can choose to believe, or not, as the mood suits, knowing all the adults around her will go along with her version of reality.  Luckily, this morning, she chose to believe, and I was able to brew my coffee without the flavoring of five-year-old tears.

I ate a sandwich of bread and mayonnaise and salami this afternoon.  I made it myself – and so I only put four thin slices of salami on it. Which is plenty. Really.  What is the point of a sandwich that does not lend itself to being eaten in small, lady-like bites? I want a comfortably sized sandwich in one hand and a book in the other.  Simple and neat.   Once, a long time ago, I was a regular at a deli. The man behind the counter found my constant requests for less meat upsetting.  I suppose I ruined the beauty of his daily creation by telling him it was just too big.  Like that scene in Amadeus when the king (or whatever he is) says to Mozart that his latest opera has “Too many notes.” Beauty is in the eyes/ears/mouth of the beholder/listener/eater.

I read the first chapter of a new book today.  I’ve waited a long time for this one:  The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch.  ( I wrote about his delay in writing here.) I downloaded the free preview onto my kindle.  It starts off strong, but I have to wait until I get paid again before I can read the rest.  I won’t look at the reviews before I read it.  If it is something I want to love, I will not allow any negative thoughts to color my potential enjoyment.  Some scientists did a study showing that spoilers do not ruin your own enjoyment of a piece of entertainment, but I don’t believe it. The study is redeemed by the fact that it defends re-reading. An activity I partake in often when I can’t afford to buy something new.

I wrote today – some of this, some of that.  Stories, chapters, e-mails, chats, texts.  Thousands of words, letters, sounds and ideas pouring from my mind, through my fingertips and out onto various screens. Bleeding out like so much blood and bodily fluids, and hopefully just as replaceable. And now I am writing a blog post – something I find hard to do when my mind is full of other projects. But there are unspoken rules in blogging, Thou Must Publish Often, being first among them.  It is not a competition, and nobody wins, but there is a level of ‘success’ to be found in the daily statistics.  While I do not let them rule my internal meter of happiness the way I used to, I still pay attention. Forgive me reader, it has been many days since my last post.

I walked with my sister and her kids today. The weather is odd in this part of the country.  My mind matches the word October with colorful leaves and cool days.  Not this humid greenness.  Not lizards scrambling across sun warmed sidewalks and dragonflies bouncing off the trampoline surface of a pool.  A sprinkler system timer tripped its switch as we walked by and we were all running, high-pitched squeals emanating from adults and kids alike, but the water was cool so we turned back and ran through it again for fun.  And even drenched, the day was still hot, and we looked forward to a dip in the pool at the end of the walk….

swimming pool
swimming pool (Photo credit: freefotouk)

I swam today, back and forth, butterfly strokes like the old ladies did when I was a kid at the pool. I wanted the exercise but I didn’t want to get my head wet and I didn’t want to exhaust myself.  What seemed so boring and slow then is refreshing and invigorating now. It all makes sense now.  The kids climbed in and out, in and out, scraping bare bellies over rough stone.  I cringed and turn away, but it didn’t seem to hurt them.  They played in the shallow end, dumping plastic cups of water over their heads, exactly the way they won’t do later in the bath.  It makes no sense to me now, but I remember the feeling, so I guess it did when I was a kid.

I laughed today. While my niece and nephew looked at me, heads tilted in confusion, I tried to read the tongue twister in the bedtime story they chose, and I just couldn’t get it right.  They laughed too but not because they thought anything was really funny.  Another book and more laughter, only that time they were the originators and I was the one that caught the laughter like a cold.  The book made no sense to me and yet it had them in hysterics. It strikes me how easy it is to tell the genuine laugh from the mimic and how young we are when we learn to fake appropriate emotional responses.

I have not cried today, but I may yet.  I might watch a movie that will make me sad.  I don’t know why, but I like that feeling. Sadness that really has nothing to do with me or my life.  Sadness that will end when the movie ends. It makes it easier to sleep, that pseudo-sadness, I find it soothing. A bath, a cup of warm milk, a good cry, and the day is done.

Good Night.

A ‘Real’ Writer

whatmakesawriterWhat makes a ‘real’ writer?

I write every day; it is the way I think. A pulse between synapse and neuron becomes motion from mind to hand, a scribble of black ink on white paper. Those ‘think on paper’ words live in a vacuum. A time capsule. They are not written for reading.

But sometimes, a specific thought will stick around after being scribbled.  The scribbling brings it into a clearer focus, separates it, cleanses it of superficial emotion. An idea is born. It takes on a life of its own.

I take the idea, the thought, the plot or character, I poke and prod it, examine it for strengths and weaknesses.  Will it work as fiction or non, first person or third?  Maybe second person future perfect. (Can you imagine? ‘You will have entered the room and you will have sipped the liquid in the glass that you will have seen on the table.’)  I work on paper first, sometimes, sitting at my kitchen table with coffee or wine, depending on the sun’s position in the sky. Sometimes I start on this screen.  Some words land in their final resting spot on the first try, some are rewritten, replaced or deleted.  I read it all aloud, listening for trips and snags. I write for my own ear, for my own taste.

Afterwards, with the act of reading, a stranger cuts the cord that binds the words to their creator.  The words need a reader to live on their own.

In this new world where the artificial filter of agents and publishers is breaking down, does the click of that blue button – labeled ‘publish’ not ‘post’ by the way – does it really mean published in the old sense of the word?  Must the definition of publish contain the words print and/or paper?

Am I a writer by virtue of the ingestion of my creation regardless of the method of consumption?  (And can I get away with a sentence like that – or is it proof that the old ways are best?)

If ten people read these words, is that real enough? How about a hundred or a thousand? Do large numbers of readers imply validity?

I ask all this because I have one and only one wish for this short and meaningless existence. All I want is to sign my name: “Jill Schmehl, Writer” without having it sound like a lie or an exaggeration.

Can I do that, yet?

This is dedicated to:

If I ever get my fiction published, I will dedicate my first book to my seventh grade teacher. This is what the dedication will say:

To Mrs. Weigel, who gave me an award for a story I didn’t write.

Yeah, that story of mine that you gushed over, that earned me the only A+ I got that year, it wasn’t mine.  Oh, I didn’t copy it word for word, but the story came from the back of a puzzle box.

Every year my mom bought a new 1000 piece puzzle for us to complete over the annual two week shore vacation.  Something to do on rainy days I guess.  A part of the down-the-shore experience that she had inherited from her parents.  That summer the puzzle had been of a deep, dark jungle: palm trees and parrots and tropical fruit. On the back of the box there was a story about the picture.  I must have read it a dozen times over the course of that puzzle’s existence on the foldout table under the bay window that faced the ocean.

The story told of a Hawaiian style shirt that came alive at night while its owner slept.  I think the parrot might have flown around the guy’s bedroom and lost a feather or something.  I don’t actually remember it now.

But I knew the story well back then.  Well enough that when you handed out the mimeographed coloring book page of a jungle scene and told us to “Demonstrate your knowledge of the First Person Narrative” by writing a story about the picture (and color the picture for extra credit) I knew exactly what story to tell.

I wonder now if you made such a big deal over the story because it was the only decent thing I had ever done in your class and you felt like it was a good opportunity to let me shine.  You were everyone’s favorite teacher.  You were kind and affectionate and you were always fair.  I wonder now if you felt a little sorry for me, so much smaller than the other kids, smart, but totally uninterested in spelling, the rules of composition or memorizing poetry. I never really excelled at anything in your class.

You made such a fuss over that story that two things clicked in my brain.  First, that making up stories and writing them down can garner praise. And second, that someday I was going to write a story for real and show it to you in order to feel like I actually deserved that praise.

Well, it took me thirty odd years, and I don’t even know if you are still alive, but here it is, a real story, just for you.  I hope you like it as much as you liked the other one.

If you should ever stumble across this blog, Mrs. Weigel, I hope you read some of the fiction I have posted here.  All of it is a 100% my own creation, and all of it is for you.

Not this one – but you get the idea

My Unrequited Love of Collaboration

That is not the Clone we are looking for [Boin...
That is not the Clone we are looking for (Photo credit: Kalexanderson)
Ah, Collaboration – The dream team working together towards a common goal.  Minds meld and a beautiful ‘something’ is created. A ‘thing’ that is better than anything the collaborators could have achieved on their own.

The reality is that the word ‘together’ is a lie. As is the word ‘common.’ And the ‘goal’ is never quite defined to anyone’s satisfaction.

I crave collaboration, but I can’t find anyone to collaborate with me. I want someone with my exact priorities. Someone I can respect and admire.  Someone to believe in me and encourage me.  Someone who is willing to work hard on things I think are worth working hard on.   Maybe I need a clone. A clone that is less lazy. A clone that will do the parts I don’t want to do. Or the parts that I think I suck at.  So not a clone – an equal-opposite.  A mirror image.

When my boyfriend and I were still ‘just friends’ we wrote the first three chapters of a novel together.  That book will never be finished.  Turns out we are not good collaborators.  I am constantly disappointed by that fact.

I want to blame him. If only he would take it as seriously as I do.  If only he had the same passion / enthusiasm / dedication as I do.  If only he would be more like me.  Again, the clone thing.

Does collaboration ever actually work? When we worked on those chapters, there was strong desire to please each other.  We were in love but unable to express those feelings, so we wrote love letters to each other in the form of chapters of a book.  One time, after we’d exchanged a few emails about the ‘disaster’ that starts the story, he stayed up all night and wrote a 7000 word prologue. I found it in my email the next morning and cried in relief at finally finding a true collaborator.  But it was all a lie.

He we are, years later, living together and still in love, but no collaboration is happening.  I write and he reads what I write, but the love is now expressed in affectionate caresses. He doesn’t need to write thousands of words to tell me he loves me, he just has to cross the room and kiss me.

The common goal, as it turned out, was not writing a book together.  The common goal was to get into each others pants.  Once we achieved that goal , the book became unnecessary.

The book is still a goal.  It just isn’t common.  It is still important to me.  I want to finish it.  I want him to want to finish it. (He isn’t interested and I’m too lazy to do all the work needed to encourage him to do his part while doing my own.)

Collaboration requires a well-defined goal, and an equal desire to accomplish that goal.  Is that possible? Can two people really have the same goal and maintain the same level of enthusiasm for all the time needed to achieve said goal?  Isn’t history littered with the detritus of failed collaboration? (Lennon/McCartney, Jobs/Wozniak,  Jefferson/Adams)  Together these collaborators made beautiful things, but eventually they split. If only they had worked together just a little bit longer…

What happened?  People change. Priorities shift. Interests wax and wane. People get into other people’s pants.

Those three chapters haunt me.  They are good. Really good.  Better than anything thing I have written on my own. Those three chapters keep my dream of collaboration alive, despite all this proof of its inherent instability.

Someday I’ll find it, the perfect collaboration.  I just hope that next time there wont be any pants involved and it will last longer than three chapters.  (Um…Is that really the best way to say that?)

The Cover Letter

letter D
A Cover Letter, get it? (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

It starts like this:
To whom it may concern.  (Except nobody uses the word ‘Whom’ anymore. Either you use it wrong and you sound like an idiot, or you use it correctly and everyone who reads the sentence spends a minute saying it out loud to themselves wondering if it is correct.  Better to avoid it all together.)

Instead, it starts like this:

To the person reading this letter,  Please, don’t stop reading until you get to the end.  And I’m going to warn you now, the end is a long way off.

First, I need to explain to you what sort of Book this is.  Which I can not do.  Instead, I will show you why I can’t explain what sort of Book this is.

The Book will start with a bit of fiction:

Is This An Emergency?”   (Just read it – it is only 678 words.  Should take you about two and a half minutes.)

See, that is most definitely fiction, right?  That would never happen in real life. In reality the ‘good mother’ would have called 911, maybe waited for the police to show up and then she would have made sure to never go to that park with her kids EVER AGAIN.  Then she might have told a friend about the disgusting mess she saw in the ‘bad mother’s’ house and that friend might have told me the story.  Then I might have written it down with a different ending to make myself (and hopefully you) feel something.

You might be thinking that this book is ‘fiction,’ or specifically, ‘short story anthology.’  And it is, except not all of it is really fiction.

Because the next section of the book has this to say:

Stubborn Ignorance” (Longer than the last one, but you’ve made it this far…)

Which is not fiction.  Mostly.  I didn’t have a tape recorder with me.  And she isn’t really the ‘friend of a friend,’  unless that mutual friend is actually my not-quite-ex-husband with whom she is now living.  (see, you are saying that word out loud right now, testing.)

You might say, well, Jill, you just can’t include those two bits together in the same book.  A book needs a theme, a plot, something to carry it from beginning to end.  Oh, really? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Is that how authors get read these days, by following the rules?

Alright, if you insist, here’s a theme for you:

Empathy.  Or rather, a lack of empathy.  It is missing, fading away, disappearing.  We need to get it back.

The ‘good mother’ in the fictional story, (And by the way, the story I told of it being partly real?  That was fiction too.) she resists the urge to distance herself from another human being.  She gets involved in someone else’s problem.  And you cried a little, didn’t you, when she did that.  Because it is the best side of us, and you recognize that, and you want it.  You crave it.  But we don’t act like that in real life.  We are afraid of being sucked in too far.  Her empathy is what makes the story fictional.

The ignorant woman in the suicide story has no empathy for suicidal people, and she is proud of that lack.  She will not allow herself to feel trapped inside sadness, because she is afraid to feel.  (In real life she smokes a lot of pot, which is just another way to avoid feeling too much.) She is not alone.  I see more and more people doing all they can to distance themselves from their own, but especially other people’s, emotions. Her lack of empathy, her fear of feeling another’s pain, is what makes the story non-fictional.

And in The Book I will expound upon this theme, and point out that it is the very screen you are reading these words upon that is creating this distance between us.  You cannot see my face and I can not see yours.  Therefore, you do not exist.  Therefore, I don’t have to acknowledge your feelings because they are not real to me.  And even when we meet, I know it will only last a minute or two, with more screens between us. And soon I will retreat into my nest, my cubbyhole, my comfy nook. And you will disappear into memory.

The Book will be all of that and more. But having a theme doesn’t help to explain what sort of Book this is. It does not explain which shelf (virtual, of course) to put The Book on.  This will be a problem with no easy solution.

The Book is me writing, and then me writing about my writing.  It is all so meta. Modern, cool, unique.  Just like me.  And it never ends or runs out.  I will always just keep writing and then write about my writing.  It is what I do.  What I have always done, and what I will do, forever.  No, not forever, not really.  I will die, after all. And so will you.

Do you want more while we last?  Good.  Just give me money.  I figured out I need only $66.67 a day to feed myself, keep the elements at bay, keep this computer running, and pay the government enough to keep the infrastructure that we all take for granted going.  I will leave it up to you to figure out how much to charge so that I get the $66.67, after your profit, of course.  I believe in profit.

Thank you for reading this far.

(By the way, The Cover Letter IS The Book.)

The Roses of Success – My 100th Post

Roses
Roses (Photo credit: TrevorLowe)

Well, here it is. My 100th post.  Isn’t it so shiny and polished?  Now that I’m such an experienced blogger, this will be a post full of wit and wisdom, of laughter and tears, of such beautiful brilliance that it will overload the blogosphere, explode beyond the confines of the interwebs, burst into the thoughts of the non-webified, and I will, finally, achieve my goal of becoming a household name.

Oh, wait, I forgot.  That wasn’t my goal at all.  My goal was to get someone (aka ‘Not Mom’) to read my stories.

But I achieved that goal. Why didn’t I celebrate that achievement?

The funny thing about goals is that once you’ve achieved them, they cease to be a goal. They become, briefly, a milestone, or one of many steps, and eventually just a blurry memory.

Remember back when I had less than ten, twenty, fifty followers? Wow, I was a nobody then.

When will I say, Well, this is it.  I’m exactly where I wanted to be?  

You could applaud this thought process.  You could say it means I am ambitious and driven.  You could say I am destined for greatness because I never stop trying to climb to that next level.  Sure.  But what if this is as high as I will ever go?  Shouldn’t I learn to be happy with where I am?  Because I might be miserable forever if I feel like my current level is too low.  But if I stop to smell the roses of success does that mean I’ve given up?

When I turned twenty-one, I went to a casino for the first time.  I spent an hour or two dropping quarters into the slot machines and enjoying the privilege of doing something that had been previously denied.  As I neared the end of my roll of quarters, I won eighty dollars.  The machine made a lot of noise and a waitress came over and told me, if you put three quarters in at a time, you could win so much more.  She kept pushing me to put the quarters back into the machine because of course, she’s paid to do that, and because she saw my measly eighty dollars as, well, measly. But I was really proud of those eighty dollars.  I enjoyed that success.  I still enjoy it.  The amount didn’t matter.  It was just that I achieved the gamblers goal: I walked out with more than I had when I walked in.

Maybe I need to redefine my goals.  The place to find my happiness is in the work itself.  That way I never stop working, no matter how large that follower number gets, and I’ll never be disappointed by how slowly the number grows.

But I am not a person who creates purely for my own enjoyment.  I have always felt there is no point in writing if no one reads my words. I get a little bubble of adrenalin-rush-happiness every time I get a new like or comment or follower.  Every time.  It never gets old. 

The little milestones are what keep me writing every day.

So I will keep writing and all those milestones will remind me that I am moving onwards and upwards.  But I will try to focus on the joy of the creation and my intense appreciation of the attention I receive from my fellow bloggers.  I will try to celebrate the little successes as they happen.  I will try to remember that my goal is to walk out with more than I had walking in.

That way, I win every day.

*

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Soundtrack – The Roses Of Success